With an increasing number of examples of COVID-19 spreading through schools and colleges, the Minnesota Department of Health's top experts used a portion of Wednesday's media briefing to express concern about the situation.
"We're very concerned about what we're seeing with the data," said Kris Ehresmann, infections disease director at MDH. "We're concerned for a couple of reasons. One is our educators have worked very hard to create a safe learning plan, but that plan only works if we're all working together to reduce transmission.
"We're very concerned that with the high rate of transmission that we're seeing that it won't be too much longer until we really have difficult decisions to make, or many schools have difficult decisions to make."
Schools in Minnesota use state health guidance and county infection rates to make informed decisions about holding classes in person or online. As of Sept. 24, the MDH reported one county (Waseca at 85.7 cases per 10,000) exceeding 50+ cases per 10,000 residents, which is the threshold for 100% distance learning for all students. That's down from six counties in the Sept. 17 report, though there are now eight (up from three) counties with 30-50 cases per 10,000 residents, which calls for a hybrid model for elementary students and distance learning for high schoolers.
The eight counties: Big Stone (43.86 cases per 10,000), Blue Earth (34.83), Clay (42.36), Stevens (34.75), Swift (34.00), Watonwan (32.81), Winona (44.64) and Yellow Medicine (39.52).
Earlier this week, Brainerd High School sent all classes in grades 9-12 to online only due to a "proven and growing cluster" of COVID-19. That happened despite Crow Wing County having an infection rate of just over 11 cases per 10,000 residents in the Sept. 24 MDH report.
Minnesota has had more than 93,000 people test positive for COVID-19 over the course of the pandemic, with people in their 20s seeing the most cases (21,977). Nearly 60% of those cases are people aged 20-24, according to MDH data.
Only five people under the age of 30 have died of COVID-19 in Minnesota. That's from 37,119 confirmed cases, creating a fatality rate of 0.01 percent. But state health leaders fear younger people will spread the virus to older and more vulnerable populations.
"We recognize that ripple effect," Ehresmann said. "We want to not only preserve the opportunity for education in person as much as possible but we want to avoid seeing this case growth impact other sectors."
Meanwhile, college campuses are experiencing surges in COVID-19. Through Sept. 20, Winona State reported 346 student cases, including 88 students currently isolating after testing positive or being exposed to someone who tested positive. Another 137 students were in quarantine after a potential exposure.
Fears of COVID-19 spreading at the University of Minnesota increased this week after hundreds of students were seen partying without masks, nor social distancing, at an area near dorms.
"We are extremely concerned and this really is a time for all of us to work together and to recognize that we are all Minnesotans and that decisions that each of us make really does have impact on other people," said Minnesota State Epidemiologist Dr. Ruth Lynfield.
There have been 1,988 confirmed COVID-19 deaths in Minnesota, of which 72.2% (1,435) were residents of long-term care facilities. Ehresmann said the MDH is currently monitoring increasing levels of COVID-19 at long-term care facilities, which were hit very hard in the early stages of the pandemic.
"Each person that dies in our state was a person, was someone who was loved by someone, someone who contributed to our community," said Lynfield. "We are in a pandemic and we have to pull together to make it through."