State public health leaders have agonized for weeks about bars, restaurants and neighborhood saloons turning into epicenters of COVID-19 spread. On Friday, they added a rodeo to the list.

The Health Department confirmed a person who showed up at the popular North Star Stampede in Effie, in Itasca County, over the weekend was contagious with COVID-19 while there and warned attendees to watch for symptoms and get tested if they develop.

In confirming the case, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm again pleaded with Minnesotans to mask up in indoor public gathering spaces, stay spaced 6 feet apart, wash hands and otherwise stay vigilant against the disease.

“I know how weary you are of hearing me say these things day after day,” she admitted at one point.

Hospitalizations, cases climb

Malcolm’s remarks came hours after her agency reported COVID-19 hospitalizations had resumed their upward climb, continuing a trend that’s been worrying Minnesota public health officials for weeks.

The Health Department reported 312 people currently hospitalized for the disease, with 151 of those needing intensive care. Both of those closely watched metrics have risen to levels not seen in more than a month.

While hospitalizations still remain far lower now than at their late-May peak, officials have been bracing Minnesotans to expect a surge following a weekslong climb in new confirmed cases. That appears to be happening.

The department confirmed 779 more cases Friday, along with six more deaths — placing Minnesota at a grim milestone of 1,600 deaths since the pandemic began. Of those who’ve died, 76 percent had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities.

Among the 54,463 total confirmed COVID-19 cases during the pandemic, about 87 percent of those infected have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.

Comfortable with schools plan

The newest numbers come a day after Gov. Tim Walz rolled out his "localized, data-driven” plan for returning to school in the fall.

The statewide plan calls for returning to in-person classroom teaching when possible. But the plan left districts to decide whether their school systems will start the year in buildings, online or some combination — based on their local COVID-19 conditions, which aren’t getting better in most places.

Malcolm on Friday said health officials are comfortable recommending that Minnesota schools open for young students this fall because data shows they pose a low risk of transmitting the coronavirus.

“We're more concerned about the ability for kids over the age of 15 to transmit,” she said, adding that her department will continue to monitor numbers and reassess school guidance if necessary.

‘Contributing to the solution — or to the crisis’

Malcolm and other health leaders this week have been ratcheting up their concerns that Minnesota is back on the wrong path in its fight against COVID-19’s spread, which is one of the reasons Walz posted the executive order requiring face coverings statewide in stores and other indoor gathering spaces.

"We think that with the mitigation efforts and if mask compliance works, this should peak about the 15th of August, and then we should see a steady downward trend,” Walz on Friday.

Officials remain particularly concerned about rising levels of community spread where the origin is unknown.

It’s “one of the things we’ve been expressing alarm about in recent weeks,” Malcolm said Friday, noting that community spread is increasing as more people return to public gathering spaces. "The current executive orders aren't being adhered to as closely as they need to be."

Wednesday marked the first time in a month that total current hospitalizations rose above 300, the product of an upswing in new confirmed infections, coming a day after Minnesota saw one of its largest one-day increases in hospitalizations since the pandemic began.

“As we have feared, we are seeing our hospitalizations begin to increase, and I don’t think it’s just a blip,” Ehresmann said.

Cases growing across age brackets, up north

Worries remain about the growth of coronavirus cases in younger Minnesotans, including that those infected will inadvertently spread the virus to grandparents and other more vulnerable populations.

Minnesotans in their 20s now make up the age group with the most confirmed cases in the pandemic — nearly 13,000. The median age of Minnesotans infected has been trending down in recent weeks and is now 36 years old.

Investigators continue to see rising cases with bars and restaurants at their center and are examining outbreaks in 28 establishments, Ehresmann said this week.

“Consider all the roles you play” in all daily interactions, she cautioned, noting that people who might not worry about themselves should worry about infecting vulnerable family members and coworkers.

Regionally, newly reported cases have been driven recently by the Twin Cities and its suburbs, but it’s present in all parts of the state, including the north, which had largely avoided the outbreak until recently.

Cases in Beltrami County, home to Bemidji, have more than doubled in the past week and a half, from 53 to 122 on Friday. That jumped again to 184 as of Friday.

Ehresmann last week said the Beltrami case increase is tied to spread from athletic events and other public gatherings. Most of the state’s latest hot spots for the disease are in northern and central Minnesota.

Meatpacking operations had been hot spots for big outbreaks in southwest, west-central and central Minnesota earlier in the pandemic, but new cases have slowed considerably in recent weeks.

Did you go to the rodeo? Watch for symptoms

Thousands of people went to the North Star Stampede, although not as actual spectators.

Rodeo organizer Cimarron Pitzen encouraged people to attend in protest of the state’s limitations on public gatherings, which would have kept the crowd under 250.

Asked why the Walz administration didn’t try to stop the effort in advance, Malcolm referred questions to the Minnesota attorney general’s office, which announced on Friday that it’s suing the rodeo’s owner for “carelessly” allowing large crowds without taking required safety precautions.

Officials said no other illnesses connected with the event have been detected yet, but that the incubation period for COVID-19 can be as long as 14 days.

Malcolm said her department is aware most people who attended the rodeo gathered without masks or much effort to socially distance. She asked anyone who attended to do those things now to limit a possible outbreak.

“We know that there were many, many people, so there is certainly the possibility of other exposures. We don’t know how many,” she said. “We’re still doing the follow-up investigation.”

This story originally appeared at: of story Questions or requests? Contact MPR News editor Meg Martin at © 2020 Minnesota Public Radio. All rights reserved.


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