The COVID-19 pandemic is escalating throughout Greater Minnesota, not just in the state’s largest urban centers. One grim sign of that is Minnesota’s death toll.
Since the outbreak began in March, the bulk of deaths from the disease have come in the Twin Cities metro area. As of Thursday, 1,730 metro residents have died in the pandemic, while 571 in Greater Minnesota have died of COVID-19.
But that picture has changed lately.
Even though more than half of the state lives in the densely populated seven-county metro, residents in Greater Minnesota have made up a larger share of people dying of COVID-19 for five weeks. Between Sept. 17 and Thursday, a total of 207 people living in Greater Minnesota have died of COVID-19, compared to 152 in the seven-county Twin Cities metro.
In the last two weeks of October, the proportion of deaths in Greater Minnesota has also ticked upward. “This is not something that’s happening just in the Twin Cities area at all,” said Kris Ehresmann, the MDH infectious disease director.
Where deaths are up in Greater Minnesota
Overall, October has already been the fourth deadliest month of the pandemic. Data show deaths are up in the metro area, but Greater Minnesota has been hit the hardest.
Between Oct. 1 and Oct. 8, the Minnesota Department of Health reported 30 deaths among people living in Greater Minnesota and 28 in the metro. Between Oct. 8 and Oct. 15, the state reported 49 deaths in Greater Minnesota and 36 in the metro (and seven deaths counted as unknown or missing). And Between Oct. 15 and Oct. 22, MDH said there were 66 deaths in Greater Minnesota and 43 in the metro.
Number of weekly cases by county in Minnesota per 10,000 residents
There is no one epicenter for those deaths outside the metro, though there are hot spots. Some of the most populous counties, like Blue Earth and Olmsted, which are home to Mankato and Rochester, show little change in death toll — even stretching back to Sept. 10.
In Greater Minnesota, the highest jumps in deaths in the last three weeks have been in St. Louis, Stearns, Mower and Mille Lacs counties. St. Louis County reported 43 deaths in the first seven months of the pandemic, but has had 22 deaths in October. Stearns County had 25 deaths between March and October, and 16 deaths in the last three weeks. Mille Lacs County had only reported three deaths as of Oct. 1, but by Oct. 22 it had 13.
MDH says broad spread of disease to blame
In a call with reporters Wednesday, Ehresmann, the MDH infectious disease director, said there have been more deaths in Greater Minnesota because there have been more cases there. “Our case growth at this point is greater in regions across the state than it is in the Twin Cities metro area,” she said.
Ehresmann said the majority of deaths coming from Greater Minnesota is notable especially because population density is low outside of the Twin Cities.
Most COVID-19 deaths in Minnesota have been among residents of long-term care facilities. Ehresmann said those facilities in Greater Minnesota have seen deaths too, as they have in the Twin Cities. But Jan Malcolm, the MDH commissioner, also said case growth is broad. Transmission can’t necessarily be pinpointed to a single gathering or nursing home.
“I think that just underscores what we’ve been saying about the fundamental shift in the dynamics of the pandemic over the recent months,” Malcolm said. “To the extent it was originally more of an urban phenomenon and more driven by specific outbreaks in certain large settings, it’s really become much more now of a statewide phenomenon driven by lots and lots and lots of different sources of transmission.”
In St. Louis County, all but two deaths since Oct. 1 have been in long-term care facilities. County spokeswoman Dana Kazel said a couple facilities have been hit harder than others, but it has been a problem all over the area.
In the last two months, however, the spread of COVID-19 in Greater St. Louis County — which excludes Duluth and surrounding areas like Hermantown — has sharply increased. The region, which includes communities like Virginia and Ely, had two deaths on Sept. 2. By Oct. 15 it had 31.
Kazel said as of Thursday, 41 percent of all cases in Greater St. Louis County have come in October alone. When the disease circulates at high levels, it seeps into long-term care facilities like nursing homes, Kazel said.
She also said the county has seen some cases in bars and restaurants, but for the most part when people are doing things in public like going to school or work “they’re doing everything right.” But Kazel said people let their guard down by not wearing masks or social distancing when attending small gatherings with family and friends — events that have been a big source of transmission. “It’s extended families getting together for a birthday party,” Kazel said. “It’s not a big wedding.”
Data from MDH shows the number of cases per 10,000 residents has sharply increased across the state from early September to early October. Stearns County went from a case rate of 8.3 per 10,000 people in the second week of September to a case rate of 27.9 in the week of Oct. 4 — which is the most recent data available. Mille Lacs County went from a case rate of 3.9 to one of 38.5 roughly a month later.
In southwestern Minnesota’s Rock County, which has a population of roughly 9,300, the case rate in that time period skyrocketed from 21.2 to a state high of 78.6. The state reported two deaths in Rock County on Thursday and one on Friday, though it had previously had just one death in the pandemic.
By contrast, Hennepin County had just 13.6 cases per 10,000 residents the week of Oct. 4. Ramsey County had 15.4 cases per 10,000 residents. While testing has increased in the state over the last couple of months, meaning more cases are likely to be identified, the positive case average appears to have increased across much of the state, too.
Ehresmann said people should not expect deaths in Greater Minnesota to be a short-term anomaly. “We will see more and more deaths from Greater Minnesota because of the high case load in that area,” she said.