ROCHESTER, Minn. — State health officials say they had "sobering conversations" with federal coronavirus task force head Dr. Deborah Birx this weekend about Minnesota passing a point of no return, from a case-containment standpoint, should recent case increases not reverse.
During a call Monday with reporters, Minnesota Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm singled out statewide private gatherings as the primary driver of escalations in case growth outpacing increases in testing in the state.
Malcolm and state Director of Infectious Disease Kris Ehresmann said a rising number of weddings, funerals and parties in which Minnesotans abandon rules they otherwise follow in public could soon put the state in a situation like that faced recently by Florida and Arizona.
"We do see good compliance in general with social distancing and mask-wearing in public places," Malcolm said. "The really alarming issues are the personal get-togethers, the informal gathering that we're doing on weekends and evenings with friends and family, be that indoors or in close proximity outdoors with large numbers of people and not wearing masks."
"Somehow we have it in our mind if we're gathering with our close family there's not the same disease spread risk that there is in public places," Malcolm said. "That's just not the case ... there isn't a different set of rules for personal gatherings than there are for public gatherings."
For the first time Minnesota has a rate of new cases that's higher than the national average, Malcolm said during the afternoon call, "and that's a big change." Because of this worsening in the state's standing, Birx and the White House advisory group are concerned about Minnesota specifically, Malcolm said.
"She wanted to assure us all that we are in a risky situation," Malcolm said. "They were sobering conversations. I very much appreciate her candor in sharing with us how this region in the Midwest is beginning to look different from other regions."
"Somehow we have it in our mind if we're gathering with our close family there's not the same disease spread risk that there is in public places. That's just not the case."
— Jan Malcolm, Minnesota Commissioner of Health
Malcolm cited house parties, weddings and funerals as the type of activities driving the state's case growth.
Ehresmann said the social gathering outbreaks are not specific to the metro area.
"We are seeing them across the state," she said, citing 29 social setting outbreaks in August alone, including nine weddings, 13 parties, and two funerals. Ehresmann said 55 bars and restaurants have added to the numbers, contributing 1,286 unique cases.
During a news conference Monday morning, Gov. Tim Walz also relayed the conversations, adding the concern in Washington that outstate residents are not taking health guidance seriously enough.
"I think her assessment and our assessment was similar," Walz said. "That we have been in a high plateau for quite some time. While we’re not at the rates of Iowa and others, it’s concerning to us that it was going up. And she highlighted some of the things that we can do to make a difference, especially in the more rural areas: Make sure we’re adhering to the mask mandate, make sure we’re adhering toward the social distancing, and making a real effort to figure out why we’ve maintained that roughly 5% positivity over a long period of time ... .I think her assessment was that we know that the science shows compliance on a lot of these standards makes a difference."
By the numbers
The Minnesota Department of Health reported an additional 679 cases of COVID-19 on Monday, Aug. 31.
The new cases cap a record-setting weekend for the spread of the illness, as Sunday saw 934 more cases and Saturday reported 1,032, a one-day record for new cases not affected by backlog reporting.
There was just one death from COVID-19 reported Monday, the lowest since a day with zero deaths on April 13. The death was recorded in Waseca, and was a resident of long-term care.
"A lot of people look at the mortality rate as an indicator of how we're doing," Malcolm said. "We're grateful every day when we see fewer people in hospital and dying ... (but) hospitalization is really a lagging indicator. If we wait to ring the bell when we see mortality increasing, we will have already lost our window to make the change that is needed. "
The state reported another 11,346 tests on Monday.
As of now, 306 patients are hospitalized with COVID-19 in Minnesota, 131 in an ICU setting.
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- Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 hotline: 651-201-3920.
- COVID-19 discrimination hotline: 833-454-0148
- Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 website: Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) website.