A year with COVID-19: How Minnesota’s response stacks up

A year with COVID-19: How Minnesota’s response stacks up

It’s been more than a year since the coronavirus pandemic arrived in Minnesota, changing nearly all aspects of life and many may never return to normal.

Nearly half a million residents have tested positive for the coronavirus, over 6,730 have died of COVID-19 and roughly 26,000 have been hospitalized. Of those who tested positive, almost 480,000 have recovered with some having minor symptoms and other long-lasting illness.

It took less than a year from the first U.S. case of COVID-19 until vaccines to combat the coronavirus were invented and given emergency federal authorization. There are currently three — from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — available in the U.S. and Minnesota has administered nearly 2 million doses.

Jan Malcolm, the state health commissioner under three governors both Democrats and Republicans recently reflected back on a year like no other. She got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine Wednesday.

“It is extraordinary. It certainly has been an unprecedented year, a difficult year. It has affected everyone in one way or another,” Malcolm said. “We’ve learned so much. When we think back a year ago, we knew so very little about this virus. Some of our early assumptions turned out to be wrong.”

Malcolm noted asymptomatic spread, when someone is sick without symptoms and unknowingly infects others, as one of the biggest surprises. She added that the quickness vaccines were developed were important not to forget.

“Not all vaccine development is successful,” she said. “The fact that here we are less than a year later with three safe and effective vaccines is just an incredible scientific accomplishment.”

As more and more Minnesotans get vaccinated and life begins to transition away from Zoom calls and distance learning, how did Minnesota do in its pandemic response?

It’s tough to gauge this early on. States have different demographics, measure things differently and had varying mitigation measures. Here are a few key metrics:

  • Roughly half a million cases have been diagnosed. That’s about 8,569 per 100,000 residents and ranks 20th fewest cases per capital nationally.
  • There have been at least 6,737 deaths, or 118 fatalities per 100,000 residents, the 16th fewest COVID-19 deaths per capita.
  • About 63 percent of those deaths have been in long-term care. Minnesota has the fourth highest percentage of long-term care deaths nationally.
  • More than 7.6 million tests have been administered and 3.5 million people have been screened for the coronavirus. Minnesota can now screen more than 60,000 samples per day putting it in the top third of states.
  • Close to 2 million vaccine doses have been administered and 72 percent of seniors have gotten at least their first shot. With more than 20 percent of residents receiving at least one dose, Minnesota ranks 10th in the U.S.

TESTING, CASES AND HOSPITAL CAPACITY

A year ago, one of the biggest challenges Minnesota faced was testing residents for the coronavirus. Confusion at the federal level and faulty test kits made it tough to diagnose the first cases because testing was so limited.

Gov. Tim Walz called for a “Minnesota moonshot” to expand testing capacity. A partnership with the University of Minnesota, Mayo Clinic and other health providers greatly expanded testing capacity.

HealthPartners provides winterized drive-up COVID-19 testing at their Bloomington headquarters, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

State leaders later spent $15 million to open a saliva testing lab in Oakdale to offer at-home screening to Minnesotans. Community testing sites have sprung up around the state.

The first coronavirus case was reported March 5 in a Ramsey County resident who had recently travelled on the Grand Princess cruise ship. Two weeks later, an 88-year-old woman from St. Anthony was the first Minnesotan to die of COVID-19.

As the coronavirus spread in the early days and weeks it became clear that hospital capacity would be an important tool for ensuring those with severe cases had the care they need. It was a key reason Walz implemented a stay-at-home order that ran from March 27 until May 8.

Dr. Rahul Koranne, CEO of the Minnesota Hospitals Association, said health professionals have learned to emphasize that hospital capacity is not just a bed in a room. Hospitals and clinics need the proper staff and supplies in order to provide patients the care they need and there were times during the pandemic both were in short supply.

Nevertheless, more than 26,000 patients needed hospital care for COVID-19 in the past year and all of them were able to get a bed in Minnesota hospitals.

“That’s a pretty incredible feat when we think back at the two massive surges we had,” Koranne said.

LONG-TERM CARE OUTBREAKS AND DEATHS

The COVID-19 pandemic has been toughest on the elderly. Nearly 90 percent of the state’s deaths have been residents over the age of 65.

Minnesota’s most vulnerable residents, those who live in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes and assisted living, have been some of the hardest hit by the pandemic. About 63 percent of the state’s COVID-19 fatalities have been residents of congregate care facilities.

That’s the fourth highest rate in the nation. Only North Dakota, New Hampshire and Rhode Island have higher rates.

Minnesota launched a five-point plan last spring to try to better protect long-term care residents. It included regular testing, better infection control, help with staffing shortages and more protective gear for workers.

The effort led to improvements and fewer deaths, but advocates for the elderly say more needs to be done. Kris Sundberg, executive director of Elder Voice Family Advocates, says the pandemic exacerbated many of the dangerous and deadly challenges already facing the long-term care sector.

Adequate funding for proper care and oversight remains one of the biggest needs, she said.

“This is a core issue and seems to indicate ageism at it is worst,” Sundberg said. “We need to value these citizens as much as we do others and that means funding (the Minnesota Department of Health) not just complaining about what they cannot get done.”

BUSINESS AND SCHOOLS LIMITS AND CLOSURES

Slowing the spread of the coronavirus meant limiting how and where people gather across the state. Businesses and schools faced some of the toughest restrictions.

Students were sent home from school to learn online in March of 2020 and many have yet to return to classrooms full time. Some haven’t returned at all.

Educators worry about how the lack of in-person instruction is hurting students, especially those who already faced academic challenges before the pandemic began. There’s also safety concerns, while children are less likely to develop serious cases of COVID-19, teachers fear catching what can be a deadly virus.

Some of the employees at Bad Weather Brewery on West Seventh Street in St. Paul gathered for a beer before heading home Monday, March 16, 2020. The taproom closed that day, due the the COVID-19 pandemic. The owners had already removed half the tables and seating and put more distance between them. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

State lawmakers are debating the best ways to help students recover from the learning they may have lost. Education advocates are pushing for a new funding bill that would help districts hold summer learning sessions and pay for funding lost to enrollment declines.

Denise Specht, president of state teachers union Education Minnesota, said there’s clearly no one-time fix.

“We are only starting to understand the full scope of how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect a generation of students and educators, so our lawmakers should be careful about relying too much on one-time infusions of funds when long-term solutions are needed,” she said.

Jimmy Griebler, a University of Minnesota senior, works on his senior design class at his house in Woodbury on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. The school went to online instruction to limit the spread of the coronavirus. (Courtesy of Jimmy Griebler)

Closures have had severe impacts on businesses large and small across the state. Service industries — like bars, restaurants, receptions and events spaces — have seen their business diminished or wiped out entirely.

Throughout the pandemic, business leaders and some Republican lawmakers have been critical of Democratic Gov. Walz’s restrictions on businesses as overly onerous and unnecessary. They’ve called for Minnesota to “reopen” like other states with more conservative leadership.

While the state’s tax collections have rebounded and unemployment rates are returning to near pre-pandemic levels, Doug Loon, president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce says the economic damage caused by the outbreak goes much deeper.

“It’s not employment that’s picking up. It’s folks actually leaving the workforce,” Loon said of the unemployment rate. “That’s a real concern.”

Loon says business owners feel many of the closures and capacity rules were too strict and state officials didn’t provide enough notice. Looking forward to summer, he fears Minnesota will lose more economic activity, from things such as weddings, events and concerts, to neighboring states.

“The pandemic has not been fair economically. The pain has not been spread evenly across the economy,” Loon said. “There needs to be balance. It needs to be between protecting public health and keeping a close eye on the economy.”

Loon praised a business rescue package the Legislature passed in December to help some of the hardest hit businesses. He urged lawmakers to go a step further and not tax federal loans businesses received to help them stay afloat, some Democrats have been reluctant to do.

RACIAL DISPARITIES IN COVID-19 IMPACTS

Another place the pandemic laid bare some of Minnesota’s biggest inequities is how the coronavirus impacted communities of color compared to their white neighbors. Black, American Indian and Hispanic Minnesotans are more likely to catch COVID-19 and require hospital care.

Death rates for communities of color have been lower, but that’s largely because those populations tend to be younger. Adjusted for age, health officials say, COVID-19 is more deadly for residents of color.

Those disparities extend to employment issues with residents of color being more likely to work jobs that put them at higher risk of catching the coronavirus. They also more often work jobs that are directly affected by closures and capacity limits.

Minnesota also has gaps in who is getting vaccinated. Data released in early March showed that 90 percent of the vaccines administered by the state have gone to white residents.

That’s despite whites making up just 82 percent of the population.

State officials say they’re working to address those inequities. They’ve moved to improve how they measure who has an opportunity to get vaccinated and are trying to make doses more easily available in communities of color.

Health officials are also working with community leaders to dispel some of the myths and confusion surrounding the vaccines.

VACCINATIONS AND REOPENING

As Minnesota nears 2 million vaccine doses administered and new cases numbers remain low, health officials are more confident that things can start to return to some semblance of normal.

More than 70 percent of seniors have gotten at least one dose of vaccine and 19 percent of residents 50 to 64 have gotten the jab. There are about 660,000 residents who are fully vaccinated and health officials hope those who’ve received at least one dose of vaccine could reach 2 million by April 1.

On Friday, Gov. Walz announced he was easing restrictions on gatherings and increasing the capacity limits on bars, restaurants, gyms, salons and other businesses. But health officials continue to caution residents not to become complacent; virus variants and other factors are still a risk.

“Minnesotans should continue to take simple steps to protect the progress we’ve made, but the data shows that we are beating COVID-19,” Walz said in a statement announcing the changes.

“Our vaccine rollout is leading the nation, the most vulnerable Minnesotans are getting the shot, and it is becoming increasingly more safe to return to our daily lives. The sun is shining brighter,” he said.

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