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COVID-19 update: A year after 1st case, hope percolates

Minnesota confirmed its first COVID-19 case exactly one year ago. The disease opened the floodgates on some of the hardest months in state history, upending nearly every part of daily life across the state.

But after more than 6,500 deaths and nearly 500,000 confirmed cases, Gov. Tim Walz says Minnesota may be positioned to “break the back” of the pandemic in the next four weeks. Vaccinations and vigilance are key, he told reporters Friday. On Saturday, the state passed the milestone of 1 million residents having received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine.

But the call for vigilance was heightened Friday night, as state and local health officials reported a “rapidly growing” outbreak of the so-called U.K. COVID-19 variant in Carver County, tied to youth sports.

And statewide, there has been a slight uptick in newly confirmed COVID cases and deaths in recent days.

Here are Minnesota’s current COVID-19 statistics:

  • 6,546 deaths (12 new)
  • 489,116 positive cases (975 new); 97 percent off isolation
  • 18.3 percent of Minnesotans with at least 1 dose
  • 61.7 percent 65 and older with at least 1 dose

Despite the concern about the Carver County cases, March continues to offer signs the worst is over. Saturday’s update from state health officials showed the pace of COVID vaccinations continues to increase in Minnesota. Averaged over the past week, the state is administering more than 41,000 vaccine doses a day — the highest that number has been since vaccinations started in December.

The Health Department on Saturday reported 543,696 people — about 9.8 percent of the state’s population — are completely vaccinated now. More than 1 million Minnesotans — about 18.3 percent — had received at least one dose.

‘Faster than we thought’

State public health leaders have said for weeks that they’d be ready to ramp up when they got more supply. With the federal government now promising enough vaccine to inoculate every adult American by the end of May — two months earlier than expected — the table seems set.

The state is expected to receive 127,169 doses next week.

Nearly 62 percent of Minnesotans 65 and older have received at least one shot currently, according to Health Department calculations. That’s important since officials have said the state will expand vaccination eligibility when 70 percent of that population gets a first dose.

Officials expected to meet that goal by the end of March. On the current trajectory, it could happen March 13, which would accelerate the timeline for when any Minnesotan can get a shot

“It’s going to be your turn faster than we thought,” Walz said in remarks Friday during a vaccination event at the Minnesota Vikings facility in Eagan.

Officials say the arrival of Johnson & Johnson doses, which require only one shot, are a game changer. More than 45,000 doses of the newly approved vaccine were expected to be distributed in Minnesota this week and next.

Conditions are improving quickly enough that June weddings and a Minnesota State Fair this year were within reach, a buoyant Walz said Wednesday.

Minnesota currently ranks 17th among states in doses administered per 100,000 people, according to data collected by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Pandemic metrics hold steady

As the pace of vaccinations gains speed, Minnesota’s COVID-19 numbers show disease conditions are fairly stable.

Hospitalization rates remain at levels last seen before the late-fall surge in cases. There were 224 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Minnesota as of Thursday; 57 needed intensive care.

Known, active cases came in at 7,400 as of Saturday, continuing a trend that stayed fairly stable through February and remains down dramatically from late November and early December, when active cases hovered around 50,000.

Twelve newly reported deaths raised Minnesota’s toll to 6,546. Among those who’ve died, about 62 percent had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities; most had underlying health problems.

Death counts have ticked up in recent days but it’s unclear if it’s a blip or evidence of something more concerning. The seven-day average death rate is back in double digits, about 10 a day.

The state has recorded 489,116 total confirmed or probable cases so far in the pandemic, including 975 reported Friday. About 97 percent of Minnesotans known to be infected with COVID-19 in the pandemic have recovered to the point where they no longer need to be isolated.

Despite recent positive trends in key metrics, officials remain concerned about COVID-19 strains with the potential to spread. Minnesota has 165 confirmed cases of the so-called U.K. variant and two cases of the Brazil variant.

State health officials continue to implore Minnesotans to stay vigilant against the disease. On Friday, with spring break approaching for students, they also urged people to put off non-essential travel.

“Even with the positive momentum we see on vaccines, so many Minnesotans are still vulnerable,” said Ruth Lynfield, the state’s epidemiologist. The state, she cautioned, could still see a spike in coming months if people let down their guard.

South-central Minnesota update

Freeborn County reported six new cases Saturday, increasing the county’s cumulative case total to 2,864.

Of that number, 83 are considered active cases. The Freeborn County Public Health Department reported one new hospitalization and no new deaths.

The new cases included one person between 10 and 14, one person in their 20s, three people in their 60s and one person in their 70s.

The following are updates on other area counties:

• Faribault County: five new lab-confirmed cases; 1,249 total cases

• Mower County: nine new lab-confirmed cases; 4,108 total cases

• Steele County: six new lab-confirmed cases; 3,036 total cases

• Waseca County: three new lab-confirmed cases; 2,104 total cases