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Year in Review: Six moments that defined the COVID-19 pandemic in Minnesota in 2020

Minnesota’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 was announced on March 6. A lot happened in the ensuing 10 months.

COVID patient in ICU
REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
384,164 Minnesotans had contracted the virus and 4,483 Minnesotans had died of it as of Dec. 15, the day when the first Minnesotans were vaccinated against COVID-19.
As of New Year’s eve, Dec. 31, 2020, it will have been a year since the World Health Organization learned of a cluster of patients with pneumonia, the cause of which wasn’t known, in Wuhan, China.

Since then, life has been kind of a blur as COVID-19 first swept the world, and then our own state. From afar, Minnesotans read about lockdowns in China and tragic death counts in Italy, and we braced themselves as the first confirmed U.S. case of the novel coronavirus was identified in Washington state on Jan. 22.

Entering the New Year, with some vaccine in hand and more on the way, the end of the pandemic may be in sight. And while no one will forget how crazy this year has been, you may have already forgotten some of the details as you were busy living through them. Let’s review.

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Early March: Minnesota reports first cases of COVID-19

It wasn’t exactly a surprise when COVID-19 was found in Minnesota. As of late January, there were several documented cases in the U.S., in Washington, California, Arizona and Illinois. As cases spread, it was only a matter of time, and many of us watched news stories of the virus blazing through a long-term care facility in Washington with trepidation as we waited for the virus to show up here.

Minnesota’s first case was announced March 6, and it came with a sinking feeling; the unavoidable had finally landed at our door. The person was a Ramsey County resident who had returned home after leaving the Grand Princess cruise ship before it was quarantined. The second Minnesota case, days after the first, was a Carver County resident who MDH said likely got the virus in Europe.

Passengers from the cruise ship Grand Princess waiting to board a chartered flight on the tarmac at Oakland International Airport on March 11.
REUTERS/Kate Munsch
Passengers from the cruise ship Grand Princess waiting to board a chartered flight on the tarmac at Oakland International Airport on March 11.
The third case, announced March 10, was a thirtysomething Anoka County resident who’d traveled for work, had no underlying health conditions and was in the ICU. This case confirmed that not even the young and healthy were safe, as the Star Tribune later reported that this patient was a young father and Ironman triathlete who nearly died in his fight with COVID-19.

Mid-March: Bars and restaurants ordered closed and first Minnesotan dies

For many Minnesotans, the first tangible sign Minnesota was in the midst of a global pandemic was Gov. Tim Walz ordering the closure of bars, restaurants and other businesses where people were still gathering, despite public health advice to keep a distance.

“We need people’s cooperation,” Walz said in announcing the closures. “To the young folks who have been told it’s not that serious, it won’t get to you: Perhaps not for you, but that’s not a given because we have young people who found themselves needing hospitalization on this. We need to stop congregating.”

The closures began at 5 p.m. on March 17, precluding the customary packing of the bars on St. Patrick’s Day. If you were out and about at that time, you saw restaurants tape notes to their doors: some typed, some handwritten, some matter-of-fact, some encouraging, about seeing their customers later.

Liquor Lyle’s, Uptown, Minneapolis
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Liquor Lyle’s, Uptown, Minneapolis
On March 21, MDH confirmed the first COVID-19 death in Minnesota. Initially, we knew little except that the person was a Ramsey County resident in their eighties with underlying health conditions.

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The Pioneer Press later reported that the deceased was Luningning Mariano, an 88-year-old mother of eight, grandmother of 21 and great-grandmother of 22 who was unbeatable at Scrabble.

As coronavirus cases increased, Minnesota’s capacity to find them was limited. Testing supplies were in high demand all over the country and the world, and the lack of a federal strategy for doling out tests meant the supplies Minnesota was able to procure were rationed early on.

March 27: Stay-at-home order issued

Minnesota had confirmed 398 cases of COVID-19 and four deaths due to the virus on March 27, when Walz’s stay-at-home” order took effect. At the time, nobody knew how hard COVID-19 would hit Minnesota. But in an address to Minnesotans, the governor said keeping Minnesotans at home was critical for building up hospital capacity.

In the following days, the usual rush hour traffic all but disappeared as workers deemed non-essential stayed home.

Gov. Tim Walz
Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune/Pool
Gov. Tim Walz speaking during a press conference on May 20.
Initially planned to last through April 10, the order was extended through May 18. In the middle of that timeframe, in late April, schools were ordered to close, with the rest of the school year finished out via distance learning.

May: Minnesota hits its first COVID-19 peak

Minnesota’s first COVID-19 peak came in May. Late in the month, there were many days with more than 30 new coronavirus deaths reported.

By May 30, Minnesota had hit 24,190 cases of COVID-19, and 1,025 deaths due to the virus. Around this time, Minnesota bought a St. Paul cold storage facility that could be converted to a morgue, should the number of deaths overwhelm hospitals and funeral homes as they did in New York.

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In the days following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police, and the protests against the system that led to his death, the Minnesota Department of Health set up its first free community COVID-19 testing sites.

After May, new case growth and deaths slowed. Restaurant patios were allowed to open June 1. In July and August, they were in the single digits most days, and test positivity rates stayed around or below 5 percent. The virus certainly hadn’t gone away, but there was something of a lull over the summer, albeit one that wouldn’t last.

Fall: Second wave of cases hit as Minnesotans move indoors

As K-12 schools and colleges started up and the weather brought Minnesotans indoors — with other people — in the fall, coronavirus cases began to spike sharply in September. The virus’ nasty roar back to the forefront of life in Minnesota lasted through October and November, when hospitals worried about providing care with so many staff out sick due to exposure or COVID-19 diagnosis.

By November 12 — less than a month and a half after the state surpassed 100,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, it hit 200,000, and 2,793 Minnesotans were dead. Fearing the effect of many potential superspreader events on health care capacity, Walz ordered Minnesotans to spend Thanksgiving with their households only, as well as closing bar and restaurant dining, gyms and other places people gathered for four weeks, with some of the closures later extended.

Between Oct. 15 and Oct. 22, the Minnesota Department of Health said there were 66 deaths in Greater Minnesota and 43 in the metro.
REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare
Between Oct. 15 and Oct. 22, the Minnesota Department of Health said there were 66 deaths in Greater Minnesota and 43 in the metro.
Minnesota exited November with the highest one-month COVID-19 death toll until December surpassed it. By the end of December, case counts began to subside, though Minnesota surpassed 5,000 COVID-19 deaths on Christmas Eve.

Dec. 15: First Minnesotans vaccinated against COVID-19

384,164 Minnesotans had contracted the virus and 4,483 Minnesotans had died of it as of Dec. 15, the day when the first Minnesotans were vaccinated against COVID-19.

Gov. Tim Walz speaking to Minneapolis VA Director Patrick Kelly after the delivery of 2,925 doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on December 14.
Aaron Lavinsky/Star Tribune/Pool
Gov. Tim Walz speaking to Minneapolis VA Director Patrick Kelly after the delivery of 2,925 doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on December 14.
Following the approval of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine and Moderna’s shortly after, Minnesotans at federal agencies including the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Veterans Administration Hospital in Minneapolis were the first to be vaccinated against the virus.

With limited supplies, the first people to get the vaccine are among the most at-risk and the most critical in caring for the state’s population: health care workers and people living in long-term care facilities. MDH hopes to have all of them vaccinated by the end of January, before moving on to subsequent populations. It’s not clear yet when vaccination will be available to most Minnesotans.