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Minnesota health officials say shutdown 'clearly helped change pandemic's trajectory'

Minnesota health leaders believe the partial shutdown played a key role in slowing the spread.

Minnesota health officials believe the partial shutdown of bars, restaurants and entertainment venues helped slow the spread of COVID-19 and send Minnesota into a better place than it was before Gov. Tim Walz ordered the shutdown mid-November. 

"We've seen the impact of the dial back process and policies that the governor put in place and Minnesotans have worked hard to follow and make good decisions," said Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm, adding during a Monday press call that the partial shutdown "clearly helped to change the pandemic's trajectory this fall and safe lives." 

"Unfortunately, a year now into this global pandemic, we know that improvement is tenuous. If we let our guard down, COVID-19 finds a way to surge back in horrifying ways," Malcolm said.  

The state reported 3,148 new cases on Monday from 9,991 tests, though approximately 650 of the positives were from a backlog, so the true total was closer to 2,500 for the immediate reporting period. 

"This still represents a very high level of COVID-19 transmission in communities across the state," Malcolm said, throwing caution to the wind that the coming weeks could worsen due to holiday gathering. 

"Frankly, we expect that that impact might be greater than what we saw over Thanksgiving," she said, noting that national data suggests gatherings and travel were much greater during the Christmas and New Year holidays compared to Thanksgiving. 

In December, Gov. Tim Walz said Minnesota's "post-Thanksgiving drop-off has been steeper than our surrounding states," giving credit to the closure of dine-in service at bars and restaurants and full shutdown of fitness centers, which have since been allowed to reopen partially. 

Walz's sentiment was echoed Monday by Malcolm, who said Minnesota's recent surge didn't have as high nor as long of a peak as neighboring states, and that Minnesota's rate of decrease was "slightly steeper than other Midwest states," which she credited to Minnesotans make smart decisions and Walz's executive order. 

Fact-checking the claim

But was Minnesota's surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths really not as high nor as long as what people in Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota experienced? 

That question was among a number of inquiries Bring Me The News submitted to the state health department in an attempt to best explain whether the shutdown was effective or not.

Dr. Ruth Lynfield, state epidemiologist, explained that each state's population density, case rates over time, timing of peaks, local compliance to orders and many other factors impact disease transmission. 

"It is likely that there are multiple factors at play. A state’s epidemiology is the composite of what goes on in its towns and neighborhoods, and the decisions that each of us make. We are trying to learn more regarding the dynamics of how COVID-19 plays out in the context of different population distributions and policies," Lynfield explained. 

"We don’t know what would have happened in Minnesota if the pause had not been put into place. We do know we were experiencing exponential growth in cases. This resulted in straining our health system, and a horrible, large increase in deaths in Minnesotans. These severe consequences have waned and we think the pause had a direct impact," said Lynfield. 

If the shutdown is viewed solely as a method to protect Minnesota's healthcare system, which was on the brink of being overwhelmed with a peak of 1,864 people with COVID-19 hospitalized on Nov. 29, then the figures suggest that the shutdown had an impact.

Walz's order started Nov. 17. Through Jan. 3, Minnesota reported 810 people with COVID-19 admitted to hospitals around the state. On a hospitalizations per million metric, Minnesota's peak was not as high nor as long as Wisconsin and Iowa, while North Dakota and South Dakota's situations were in a league of their own. 

Hospitalizations per million on a 7-day average, per The Covid Tracking Project

  • South Dakota: Peaked at 686 Nov. 10; now at 296
  • North Dakota: Peaked at 558 Nov. 14; now at 129
  • Iowa: Peaked at 480 Nov. 19; now at 183
  • Wisconsin: Peaked at 391 Nov. 17; now at 175
  • Minnesota: Peaked at 326 Nov. 30; now at 159

When it comes to cases per million, Iowa and Wisconsin didn't quite reach the height of Minnesota's peak in mid-November, though Minnesota has the lowest levels of all five states now, albeit very close to North Dakota and Iowa. 

Cases per million on a 7-day average, per The Covid Tracking Project

  • North Dakota: Peaked at 1,848 Nov. 18; now at 295
  • South Dakota: Peaked at 1,648 Nov. 14; now at 507
  • Minnesota: Peaked at 1,250 Nov. 20; now at 291
  • Iowa: Peaked at 1,211 Nov. 15; now at 297
  • Wisconsin: Peaked at 1,210 Nov. 18; now at 444

All in all, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin all saw an explosion of cases, hospital admissions and deaths from September through November and all metrics have dropped off significantly in December and the early days of January. 

All five states were in the process of seeing a slowing of disease transmission, with all seeing a significant drop from the peaks in recent weeks even though Minnesota is the only state that imposed restrictions on businesses, although Iowa did enact a mask mandate for the first time in mid-November.

But it's also possible, though impossible to confirm, that Minnesota's restrictions kept hospitalizations lower than they otherwise would've been.

Walz extended the executive order that bans indoor service at bars and restaurants until Jan. 11. He told WCCO Radio on New Year's Day that he'll likely address the executive order's status on Tuesday or Wednesday this week. 

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