Fresh data released by the Minnesota Department of Health is again shifting the guidance for some of the state’s school districts as they decide whether to teach kids in-person, online or in some combination based on their local COVID-19 conditions.
The new numbers, for instance, indicate elementary school students in Ramsey and Dakota counties would no longer be recommended to attend school in person — if school started this week — due to rising COVID-19 cases.
Data released Thursday by the Health Department indicate 11 counties, including Ramsey and Dakota, should shift away from in-person learning because of rising cases.
Schools in another 14 counties, largely in the southern part of the state, would be recommended to shift toward in-person learning. The state’s other 62 counties saw no change in their recommendations, which are based on COVID-19 cases per capita over a 14-day period.
Officials have emphasized the map is meant to be a starting point for school districts as they weigh their mix of in-person and online instruction in the COVID-19 era. The numbers, and the accompanying recommendations, are updated every week now.
Counties with very few cases per capita are recommended to have in-person learning for all students — 48 counties as of Thursday.
With more cases, schools are urged to have secondary students do a mix of in-person and distance learning while still doing in-person school for elementary grades. Another 29 counties fall into that category.
Eight counties are currently recommended for hybrid learning for all students. They include Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota, Scott, Sherburne and Blue Earth.
Two counties have so many cases that the state currently recommends upper-grade students there study remotely full-time: Rock County in southwestern Minnesota, and Red Lake County in northwestern Minnesota.
Officials have stressed that the county-level data is a roadmap, not an order. Districts within those counties are making decisions that may not fit exactly with the data.
St. Paul Public Schools, the state’s second largest school district and the largest district in Ramsey County, has already announced it will start the school year with all students distance learning and will revisit the decision in late September.
Cases grow among 20-somethings, up north
Minnesota officials continue to worry about the growth of COVID-19 among younger Minnesotans, including that those infected will inadvertently spread the virus to grandparents and other more vulnerable people.
People in their 20s remain the age group with the highest number of COVID-19 confirmed cases in the pandemic — more than 14,500.
The past few days of data show Minnesotans younger than age 20 have been running close to 20-somethings for most new cases, although those numbers have slipped.
The median age of Minnesotans who are confirmed infected is 36. That’s been trending down in recent weeks.
Here are the current COVID-19 statistics:
62,993 positive cases, 56,346 off isolation
308 still hospitalized, 154 in ICU
1,203,559 tests, 963,096 people tested
Regionally, the Twin Cities and its suburbs have been driving the counts of newly reported cases.
New cases, though, have slowed dramatically in the Twin Cities metro area the past few days while the numbers in northern and southern Minnesota continue to rise.
Several of the state’s fastest-growing outbreaks relative to population are in northern Minnesota. Beltrami County, home to Bemidji, has seen a steady climb the past few weeks. The county reported 264 cases as of Thursday.
Meatpacking operations had been hot spots for big outbreaks in southwest, west-central and central Minnesota earlier in the pandemic.
New cases have slowed considerably in recent weeks, although the problem has resurfaced recently in McLeod County (224 cases), where more than 20 employees at a Seneca Foods plant in Glencoe have been identified in an outbreak.
‘We are all connected’
Increasingly concerned over reports of despondent residents in long-term care, state officials this week also rolled out new guidance designed to open the door wider to visitors.
“Loneliness, depression, isolation and heartbreak are all safety issues,” Aisha Elmquist, the state’s deputy ombudsman for long-term care, told reporters Monday as she and other public health leaders answered questions around the latest COVID-19 data.
“Everyone needs others,” she added, “including those who live in long-term care settings.”
Most of the people who’ve died from COVID-19 in Minnesota had been living in long-term care. That toll is one of the reasons long-term care has faced steep visitor restrictions.
In early May, the Walz administration unveiled a “battle plan” to safeguard Minnesotans living in long-term care facilities, including expanded testing, more personal protective gear for health workers and a promise to maintain “adequate” staffing when workers fall ill.
It helped drive daily death counts down to mostly single digits. Now, though, officials worry those gains may slip away as COVID-19 ripples across the state.
They said they’re seeing new cases tied to long-term care facilities that they believe are being driven largely by community spread and brought in inadvertently by facility staff as restrictions on daily life loosen and people return to indoor gathering spaces and attend family events.
The big-picture situation in long-term care is “quite positive,” Jan Malcolm said Monday, noting that 90 percent of assisted living facilities in Minnesota and 71 percent of skilled nursing homes have had no cases of COVID-19 in the past 28 days.
Still, state epidemiologist Dr. Ruth Lynfield urged people to stay vigilant against the spread of the disease — wearing masks in indoor gathering places, social distancing and washing hands — and warned that the work to limit spread among vulnerable populations was at risk as people return to public spaces.
“This is fragile and we are very concerned that the progress we have made can be at risk, and can even be lost, if we let up on our precautions,” she said Monday. “We need everyone in Minnesota to be doing their part to limit transmission. We are all connected to each other.”