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Are Minnesotans better at social distancing?

Health officials credit response for low infection rate

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 4/8/20

REGIONAL—While public health officials are being careful with potentially good news, there are signs that the worst of the COVID-19 impact in Minnesota could be peaking within the next two …

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Are Minnesotans better at social distancing?

Health officials credit response for low infection rate


REGIONAL—While public health officials are being careful with potentially good news, there are signs that the worst of the COVID-19 impact in Minnesota could be peaking within the next two weeks, and at significantly lower levels than initially feared.
That comes as Minnesotans have proven to be remarkably effective at controlling the spread of the virus behind the global pandemic.
“There could be something to Minnesota culture that makes us better at social distancing,” quipped Jeremy Youde, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at UMD and an author on the politics of global health. More seriously, Youde credits an effective state response with keeping the infection rate in Minnesota remarkably low compared to other states. “To be effective, a public health intervention depends crucially on communication and trust, and the state has really done a great job,” said Youde. “We’re getting clear messages from state officials and, very crucially, they are giving us the same message.”
Public health experts are giving Gov. Tim Walz credit for that consistency and for following the science as it continues to develop around the current pandemic. “Our health department and our governor didn’t wait for it to get bad,” said Kelly Searle, an epidemiologist and assistant professor with the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities. “As soon as that first case was reported, we were already looking out at what had been happening elsewhere. We could start implementing measures pretty quickly in response,” said Searle. Those measures included implementing a state of emergency on March 13, just one week after the first confirmed case in Minnesota. Five days later, Gov. Walz ordered the closure of the state’s schools. And on March 27, he issued a stay-at-home order through April 10.
While the number of infections is still rising in Minnesota, the rate of growth in new cases has been remarkably low compared to other states. In fact, the number of infections per capita in Minnesota is currently among the lowest of all 50 states, with just 210 confirmed infections per million people as of Wednesday. Statewide, 1,154 Minnesotans have been diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus since the first infection was confirmed on March 6.
That compares to more than 7,000 per million residents in New York, the state hardest hit by the virus. Across the country, the average number of infections, by state, per million population, was 1,150 as of this week.
That has state health officials feeling increasingly hopeful that the impact of the pandemic could be limited here in Minnesota. “Right now, we’re a month out, and we’re not trying to be carefree about it. But things are not out of control at this point,” said Searle.
The low number of infections in Minnesota does not appear to reflect a low number of tests, although Minnesota has tested far fewer residents per capita (at 5,294 per million residents) than some of the hardest hit states. Across the country, health officials have conducted an average of 6,077 tests per million residents, although the vast majority of the tests are being done in states with much more severe outbreaks than seen in Minnesota so far. Minnesota’s testing rate is actually running above the levels in many other states in the nation’s mid-section. The average for ten Heartland states, from the Dakotas to Oklahoma, and Arkansas to Wisconsin, was 4,569 tests per million population as of this week.
“Minnesota seems to be doing a better job of mitigating transmission, at least at this point,” said Searle.
While health officials and the governor can take some of the credit for that, Youde said Minnesotans in general appear to have done a good job of complying with the governor’s recent stay-at-home order. “I live right by the beginning of I-35 in Duluth, and I’m struck by how few cars I see on the interstate these days. That’s proof that Minnesotans know what the state is asking us to do and are taking these messages to heart.”
Youde said the governor’s response to the virus has helped build confidence. “Governor Walz, in particular, has also done a great job of showing us the data that he and other officials are using, empathizing with the significant burdens these restrictions are imposing, and acknowledging what we don’t know,” said Youde. “All of these efforts build and reinforce a sense of trust, and that makes it easier for all of us to do what needs to be done.”
Minnesota may have also caught a break with the timing of the pandemic’s arrival in the state, which largely coincided with spring break at many schools. That meant that most students haven’t gathered together since the first week of March, or about the time that the virus first arrived in Minnesota. Searle notes that St. Paul schools were closed a week before that due to a teachers’ strike. While all these events may have been unrelated, Searle said the timing was fortunate as it relates to Minnesota’s efforts to fight the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
New projections raising hopes
And new projections issued this week by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, suggest that Minnesota will largely avoid the kind of infection rates and deaths that earlier models had suggested.
The latest data suggests Minnesota will retain sufficient hospital and intensive care unit capacity to meet the anticipated need.
According to the new model, the state will hit its peak hospitalization need on April 23, with the need for hospitalization dropping sharply after that to near zero by Memorial Day. The model projects Minnesota will see a peak in daily deaths at 24 on April 26, before falling to zero by May 25.
While earlier models had suggested that Minnesota could see tens of thousands of deaths even with social distancing and other measures, the latest study now projects a total of 625 deaths in the state related to the pandemic.
But public health officials note that these numbers don’t take into account the fact that many potential infections may never be recorded in official tallies. “What proportion of actual cases are we seeing right now? That’s something we’re still trying to figure out,” said Searle. “There is a lot of individual decision-making that either brings or doesn’t bring people to seek medical care,” said Searle. “There is also a lot of variation in terms of the response to the virus.”
Most of those infected will experience only relatively mild symptoms, which may not be severe enough to prompt them to seek out medical attention. And some, although the percentage is still uncertain, will experience no symptoms at all, meaning they’re unlikely to ever seek testing. “Generally, in only the most severe cases are people seeking medical care,” noted Searle.
Perhaps the best news for Minnesotans is that the worst of the pandemic could be in the rearview mirror by Memorial Day, meaning that many of the restrictions currently in place may be lifted just in time for summer.