MDH COVID-19 briefing: Christmas family gatherings likely to face restrictions

Gov. Tim Walz speaks during a COVID-19 press conference on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. Photo: KSTP. Gov. Tim Walz speaks during a COVID-19 press conference on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020.

KSTP & Callan Gray
Updated: November 30, 2020 11:31 PM
Created: November 30, 2020 01:47 PM

Gov. Tim Walz was joined by Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm joined Walz in delivering a bleak message that darker days are likely coming in the COVID-19 pandemic. They say Minnesotans need to work hard to combat COVID-19 and keep hospitals from becoming overwhelmed.

Just before the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, Minnesota reported more than 100 deaths in a single day (101 the day before Thanksgiving) for the first time and also continued to report high case numbers. Despite some slightly lower positive test result numbers reported recently, the governor says it's likely he will recommend restrictions on Christmas family gatherings.

"I'm not going to surprise anybody," he said. "I think the guidance around Thanksgiving is going to be very similar around Christmas."

He did not say whether restrictions on bars, restaurants, health clubs and youth sports will continue past December 18. A decision on that will likely come in a week or two as they get more data on COVID transmission after Thanksgiving.

In addition to the record one-day death total last week, daily deaths averaged 49 per day over the past two weeks, and deaths typically lag three to four weeks from a confirmed case. With some more recent high case totals, death and hospitalization numbers are expected to be even worse in the coming weeks. Malcolm expects the state to surpass 400,000 cases within the next few weeks. 

“This is the worst spot we've been in since March and that is what the data tells us,” said Malcolm. “With so much of the virus around, things that seemed relatively safe even in August or even in early October are much, much higher risk as we head into December."

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Malcolm urged Minnesotans to work hard to combat spread by following health guidelines, and added that's important for rural Minnesotans too, not just those in the Twin Cities.

More than one-third of counties have now had rates of more than 100 weekly cases per 10,000 people, she said. For context, MDH considers anything above 10 cases per 10,000 people to be a high growth rate. Malcolm added that community spread in most counties is 10 times higher than it should be.

"This virus is in every single county, in every corner of our state," Malcolm said, noting that case growth rates are actually higher in Greater Minnesota than in the Twin Cities.

Referencing several charts from MDH, Malcolm also noted:

  • The weekly seven-day rolling average positivity rate has tripled since the middle of last month.
  • At the start of Nov., COVID-19 patients accounted for 18% of ICU beds and 9% of non-ICU beds in hospitals. As of Monday, they accounted for 35% of ICU beds and 25% of non-ICU beds.
  • As of Monday, 1,840 patients are in Minnesota hospitals with COVID-19, and 392 of those in intensive care units.
  • Minnesota now has more cases per population than New York, Texas, Florida and many other states that were previously hotspots.

"This is the worst spot we've been in since March; that's what the data tells us," Malcolm said.

Walz said it was important to highlight the recent data and added, "data doesn't give you answers, it gives you information to ask questions." Malcolm also said it was important that everything is put into context of the longer-term trends, adding that the virus is still very new at just 9 months old in Minnesota.

She noted that MDH tries to provide as much data as possible but it takes a few weeks to get the full picture of what's happening at a point in time. With that in mind, the data still suggests the state is on a dangerous path.

Malcolm also said the virus seems to have a bit of a wave pattern where declines and short periods of good numbers are followed by inclines and spiking numbers. That is likely to continue moving forward.

The biggest thing that can be lost in the data sometimes is its impact. The rising number of hospitalizations continues to put hospitals and health care workers in a tough spot. Malcolm said many are running close to capacity and both hospitals and long-term care facilities are struggling to keep up with staffing because many employees are becoming infected, not from patients or residents but from community spread.

Specifically talking about long-term care facilities, Malcolm showed a chart comparing new COVID-19 cases in Minnesota with new cases at long-term care facilities. While the state's cases spiked, long-term care facilities' cases remained steady until recent weeks, when it began to inch upward. Malcolm noted that those cases are particularly concerning due to the vulnerable population in long-term care facilities.

Monday, some health care officials spoke to 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS about how staffing levels are impacting hospitals. 

"We're all sitting in a place where we have available beds but not enough staff to actually increase capacity too much more," said Helen Strike, president of Regina Hospital and River Falls Hospital, which are a part of Allina Health. "Quite honestly, our staff are exhausted, they're tired. We've been at this for a long time."  

According to Strike, the surge is forcing hospitals to reconsider how many services they can offer non-COVID-19 patients. 

"Many of us have scaled back the types of procedures we're able to do right now because many of our ICU and med surge beds are with COVID patients in them. I think one of the places that probably affected the most are our emergency rooms," said Strike, pointing out the ER is often the first point of entry for many COVID-19 patients. 

"We're predicting that if things get higher than they are now that we are going to have to very seriously decrease the care for non-COVID patients," she added.

HealthPartners is also facing capacity challenges.

"We're seeing a lot of COVID cases and that's all across our system," said Dr. Jerome Siy, the division medical director of hospital medicine for HealthPartners.

He said the surge in cases extends from large urban hospitals to small community hospitals in rural areas. 

"A lot of respiratory problems are the predominant symptoms that people come in with," Siy said. "Each day, several dozen, probably two (to) three dozen patients are being admitted to the hospital. And a lot of them are requiring intensive care."

He said due to the level of care these patients need, they are being transported to hospitals with intensive care units, including Regions Hospital and Methodist Hospital. Capacity has reached 90 to 95 percent, according to Siy.  

Siy is also concerned about the increase in cases that are expected to follow the recent Thanksgiving gatherings, especially with more holiday events on the way in the next several weeks. 

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS asked Siy if he feels they will have the capacity to treat the number of COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 cases expected in the upcoming weeks. 

"Caregivers have always responded with that sense of purpose and with that attitude that we're here for our community, and so yes, I want to say we're going to be able to do that," he said.  "But I think we all are fearful of not being able to, and because of that we really need our whole community to respond. We're going to have to be brave and we're going to have to make sacrifices for us and for our nation, and if we do that we will get through this."

While the data suggests the state is in a gloomy situation, Malcolm noted there is a light at the end of the tunnel and we do have a vaccine to look forward to next year. However, she said it's important to double down on our efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 to ensure that as many people as possible can make it to that time when a vaccine is finally available.

Moving forward

Walz said he expects to have a briefing with federal officials about vaccine distribution in the next week.

He applauded the federal effort on vaccine distribution and said he believes it will lead to good results when a vaccine is finally rolled out.

On that note, Walz said he's heard the first distribution of Pfizer's vaccine could come in the second week of December. However, he said Minnesotans should recognize that March and April remain the expectation for a larger scale vaccine rollout.

As for who will receive the first doses of the vaccine, which are expected to be in short supply initially, Walz said there's still debate among federal health officials about that. 

“I think most Minnesotans need to understand that trying to get the number of vaccinations to start to get the immunity, and start to get the impact, we need probably going to be into the first and second quarter of next year, March and April, by the time a lot of that is rolling out,” Walz said.

He said some officials believe health care workers should get the first doses while some believe people 65 years of age and older should. 

Relief for Minnesota

Last week, Walz talked about getting economic relief for Minnesotans and unveiled his proposal for how to do that.

Monday, Walz said lawmakers had substantive talks over the weekend and are starting to make some progress on an economic relief package but no deal has been reached yet. Walz previously said he'd call a special session to pass that relief package as soon as an agreement was reached.

He noted that new budget forecast numbers are set to be released Tuesday and will likely help lawmakers finalize some decisions for the relief package.

Malcolm and Walz thanked Minnesotans who followed the guidance over Thanksgiving weekend and avoided large gatherings like normal. For those who did have gatherings, Malcolm urged those people to get tested five to seven days after the gathering took place and self-monitor for symptoms of COVID-19.

As for Christmas, Walz said he has a hard time believing things will change enough over the next four weeks for Minnesotans to be able to safely gather but he says MDH will continue to reassess and follow the data.

15 new COVID-19 deaths, 5,801 new cases reported by MDH

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