Coronavirus infections have started to — very slightly — show signs of trending downward as Thanksgiving dawns, but health officials are still concerned that holiday gatherings could spur another uptick in cases.
“We would not consider that we have any sort of a reliable trend just yet,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said at a media briefing Tuesday.
The Minnesota Department of Health reported 6,399 cases and a daily record-tying 72 deaths Wednesday, while hospitalizations continue to trend at a high level. Still, the state’s positivity rate trended down again Wednesday on a record testing day of more than 65,000.
St. Louis County registered 301 new infections and four additional deaths, bringing the region to 102 fatalities since the pandemic began. In total, the county 7,869 cases and 5,357 of them are out of isolation.
As coronavirus cases raced through the state in mid-November, Malcolm warned that the daily case rate could hit 10,000 by Thanksgiving, but daily infections have trended back to the 6,000 range this week, and health officials aren’t ready to declare Minnesota over the peak quite yet.
“While we’ve certainly been pleased to see somewhat lower case counts in recent days, we think that this might be another of those patterns that we’ve seen earlier in the epidemic,” she said Tuesday. “Possibly we are in a trough now between waves and do not necessarily think that what we’ve seen in recent days represents the downside of a peak.”
Thanksgiving presents a new challenge for the improved rates as health officials worry about COVID-19 spreading among families, especially from those who are asymptomatic and may unknowingly spread it to relatives and friends, which could lead to further hospitalizations and more grim death rates in coming weeks.
Officials have urged Minnesotans to limit gatherings to only people in their immediate household this holiday and suggested people take precautions like wearing a mask and social distancing at get-togethers involving family that traveled.
“It's very risky right now to get together with friends,” said Kris Ehresmann, the infectious disease director for MDH last week.
Health officials and care providers have pleaded with residents to take the guidelines seriously as hospitalization and ICU rates have pushed health care systems to their capacity in recent weeks.
But they recognize COVID fatigue has set in for many Minnesotans after hearing warnings about the virus since it first hit the state in March and brought with it a massive disruption to normal life. Restaurants and bars have been closed to indoor dining twice in that span, schools have shifted in and out of in-person, hybrid and distance learning models and many events have been canceled.
At the same time, long-term care facilities closed themselves to visitors at various times as outbreaks impacted the industry and its elderly residents the hardest in the pandemic. And many Minnesotans lost their jobs or worked at reduced hours at one point in the last eight months, adding economic stress to the mix.
“We’re really longing for things that we took for granted,” said Dr. Kelsey Redland-Klavido of Essentia Health-Virginia, in a recent interview. “We miss being with people. We miss going to a big event. It is affecting the mental health of everyone, even if you didn’t have mental health issues before this.”
She added: “We feel it. I feel it. My family feels it.”