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How Minnesota’s second year of pandemic compared to its first

For one thing, while more people tested positive for COVID-19 in the pandemic’s second year, fewer of them died.

Then-Vice President Mike Pence and Gov. Tim Walz speaking about responding to COVID-19 at a March 5, 2020, press conference at 3M's Maplewood headquarters. 3M CEO Mike Roman is shown to the left of Walz.
Then-Vice President Mike Pence and Gov. Tim Walz speaking about responding to COVID-19 at a March 5, 2020, press conference at 3M's Maplewood headquarters. 3M CEO Mike Roman is shown to the left of Walz.
REUTERS/Nick Pfosi

It was a quiet Friday afternoon, until it wasn’t.

On Friday, March 6, 2020 — two years ago on Sunday — the Minnesota Department of Health announced the first case of COVID-19 had been confirmed in Minnesota.

A lot has happened in the 733 days since then. Minnesota’s first year living with COVID-19 was marked by uncertainty, the loneliness of being apart and a lockdown. Near the end of that year, there was hope, as Minnesotans began to be vaccinated against the virus.

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In the second year, things loosened up as an increasing number of people were vaccinated against the virus, but the virus was different. The delta variant brought more severe disease before omicron caused a surge in cases.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm speaking at a March 3, 2020, press conference: “Based upon what we’re seeing, we do believe it’s likely that we will see cases and likely in the very near future.”
As we enter the third year  and immunity becomes more widespread, COVID-19’s hold on our lives feels like it’s beginning to lift. Governments are moving towards a posture of living with the virus.

Here’s a look at how our first two years of living with COVID-19 differed, and what could lie ahead as we enter year three.

Waves of cases

Since March 6, 2020, Minnesota has confirmed 1,420,149 cases of COVID-19. That number is likely an undercount for a few reasons, including that testing was hard to come by both early in the pandemic and during the omicron surge, and because many COVID-19 cases have been asymptomatic. Further, the results of at-home COVID-19 tests are not reported to the state.

Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, non-essential businesses were shut down and indoor dining was forbidden. Testing was inadequate, so the true size of the initial spring wave of COVID-19 can’t really be determined from official case counts.

Still, by the summer of 2020, daily case counts did appear to have stabilized, and many of the restrictions of public life were lifted. That changed quickly in the fall of 2020 when daily case counts increased rapidly, creating a second wave of COVID-19 that lasted into the early months of 2021. As a result of this increase in cases, Gov. Tim Walz reimposed restrictions on the size of gatherings and indoor dining was again shut down.

Seven-day rolling average of Minnesota daily new COVID-19 cases, first year vs. second year
Source: Minnesota Department of Health

Going into the second year of the pandemic, in March of 2021, case counts were once again on the rise, but there was reason for hope: COVID-19 vaccines, which were first made available to health care workers in December, were starting to be made available to the general public. Following the first wave of vaccination, daily new case counts dropped to some of their lowest numbers since the beginning of the pandemic, and by early summer of 2021 masks were coming off and society was beginning to open up almost to a level not seen since before COVID-19.

North Memorial COVID vaccination site, Brooklyn Center
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
North Memorial COVID vaccination site, Brooklyn Center
It wasn’t to last. By mid-summer of 2021, the delta variant of COVID-19, which caused more severe disease and proved better at evading vaccines than previous strains of the coronavirus, began to fuel a new wave of COVID-19 cases that lasted through the fall. Daily new case counts during this delta wave generally didn’t reach the peaks that they had reached in the previous fall’s wave, but they were still high enough to lead to the reimposition of some precautions, such as mask mandates in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Then came omicron. Case counts grew rapidly in late 2021 and early 2022 with the emergence of this new variant, which research suggests is more transmissible than even delta. On the positive side, on average omicron caused less-severe disease. While the share of people hospitalized with omicron was smaller than with previous variants, omicron caused the largest wave of cases the state had yet seen, again filling hospitals.

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Roughly two-thirds of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Minnesota ever happened in year two (though again, poor availability of testing in the first year, especially at the very beginning of the pandemic, means the official case counts are an undercount) .

A less-deadly year

While COVID-19 case counts were higher in the second year of COVID-19, deaths were not.

As of Tuesday, Minnesota has confirmed 12,221 deaths due to COVID-19 since March 6, 2020.

The majority of those deaths occurred in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to data from the Minnesota Department of Health, there were 7,005 COVID-19 deaths in Year 1.

Seven-day rolling average of Minnesota daily COVID-19 deaths, first year vs. second year
Source: Minnesota Department of Health

COVID-19 deaths rose at a steady pace over the spring of 2020 as the virus spread across the state among a population being exposed to it for the first time. Health care systems struggled to figure out how to treat so many patients sick with a virus that attacked so many systems of the body. Many of the people dying were older. Residents of long-term care weren’t allowed to see their loved ones for months as these facilities shut down to slow the spread.

Over the summer, deaths declined along with cases. But the virus would roar back again in the fall, filling hospitals and increasing the number of daily deaths.

COVID-19 deaths declined quickly after vaccines became available, administered first and widely to the most vulnerable Minnesotans as well as health care workers.

By the virus’ first anniversary in Minnesota, only the oldest and most vulnerable residents, plus health care workers, were getting vaccinated. On March 7, 2021, only 18.8 percent of the state’s residents had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Two years later, a much larger swath of the state’s population is eligible for vaccination, and the percentage of Minnesotans who are vaccinated stands at nearly 70 percent. Nearly half the population — 45.7 percent of Minnesotans — are considered up-to-date on shots, with a primary vaccine series as well as a booster shot if they’re eligible for it.

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For a time, as more Minnesotans got vaccinated and case counts and deaths were low over the summer, things began to feel almost normal again.

But as the delta variant began to spread, deaths started to rise quickly, beginning in August. Hospitals started to fill again, mostly with unvaccinated people, and deaths rose. The omicron surge drew the wave of deaths out into December.

Data show, 5,216 Minnesotans died of COVID-19 in year 2, a smaller number than in Year 1 due to vaccines, better treatment and more widespread immunity.

Thanks to vaccinations, the number of older Minnesotans — the people most likely to be vaccinated with rates over 90 percent — who died of COVID-19 dropped drastically between Year 1 and Year 2. The number of deaths in some younger adult age groups increased in year two as compared to year one.

Looking ahead

In Year 3 of COVID-19, there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic. Some estimates put the share of the population with some level of immunity to COVID-19, whether by vaccine or infection, at or above 80 percent.

Experts like to say we are living in a new normal. The omicron wave that’s winding down likely won’t be our last wave of COVID-19. And omicron may not be the last variant. But COVID-19 vaccines are expected to remain at least somewhat protective against severe COVID-19 disease.