Minnesota surpasses 10,000 COVID-19 deaths

The 54 fatalities reported Wednesday ranged in age from their 40s to their 90s.

By CHRISTOPHER MAGAN | cmagan@pioneerpress.com | Pioneer Press | PUBLISHED: December 15, 2021 at 11:29 a.m. | UPDATED: December 15, 2021 at 9:50 p.m.


Minnesota on Wednesday surpassed 10,000 COVID-19 fatalities, a milestone illustrating the deadly toll the pandemic continues to inflict on the state, nation and globe.


The state Department of Health reported 54 new deaths Wednesday, pushing the number past the mark in Minnesota. Meanwhile, more than 800,000 U.S. residents have died since the pandemic began in 2020 and the worldwide death toll now tops 5.3 million.


“Minnesotans are missing 10,000 loved ones because of this pandemic — that’s 10,000 fewer spots at the holiday dinner table and thousands of families grieving during what should be a time of joy,” Gov. Tim Walz said in a statement to the Pioneer Press. “Every single one is heartbreaking, and we must all do what we can to ensure not another life is lost. Get vaccinated, get your booster if you’re due, wear a mask if you’re indoors, and get tested.”

Minnesota’s death rate fares well nationally, with 178 fatalities per 100,000 residents, and the state has the 12th-lowest rate of deaths. However, more than half of Minnesota’s deaths have been in long-term care facilities, well above the national average, putting the state near the top of the list for deaths per capita in facilities that care for the most vulnerable.


The state remains in a fourth wave of infections of the coronavirus that has stretched on for five months. The severity has prompted Walz to mobilize the Minnesota National Guard, create temporary alternative care sites and seek aid from federal medical teams to help overburdened hospitals.


AGING HIT HARDEST

The deaths reported Wednesday were representative of the ongoing impact of the pandemic, with 45 of the fatalities seniors and 18 of them residing in long-term care. Those whose deaths were reported Wednesday ranged in age from their 40s to their 90s.


Older Minnesotans and those with underlying health conditions have been hardest hit by the pandemic. Seniors, 65 and older, account for 84 percent of the state’s overall COVID-19 fatalities.


While older Minnesotans account for the most deaths, COVID-19 can be dangerous for young and healthy people, too. There have been 133 deaths in residents under the age of 40.


IMPACT ON LONG-TERM CARE

Of the 10,018 Minnesotans who’ve died since March 2020, 5,074 were residents of long-term care facilities such as nursing homes and assisted living.


“It is heartbreaking,” said Kristine Sundberg, executive director of Elder Voice Family Advocates. She says that Minnesota had been slow to increase oversight, including licensing, of assisted-living facilities, only recently enacting stricter rules after widespread reports of problems in the industry.


“It’s really no wonder we have one of the highest death rates” of those in such care, Sundberg said. “There are far too many operators with poor protections and inadequate staffing. It’s too late for a lot of parents, spouses and loved ones.”


Patti Cullen, executive director of Care Providers of Minnesota, disagrees that stricter oversight would have led to fewer pandemic deaths. She noted that nearly every sector of society struggled to respond to the pandemic initially and that facilities that care for the most vulnerable had enormous challenges.


Long-term care residents were among those at highest risk, tests and protective gear were initially in short supply, and staffing shortages have long plagued the industry.


Cullen added that vaccines were a “game changer” when it comes to protecting long-term care residents, but increased demand has caused the industry to struggle to administer boosters as quickly as it would like to. She also acknowledged challenges getting staff to be vaccinated with rates now averaging above 60 percent statewide with many facilities with higher rates.


“We are reflective of the community,” Cullen said of vaccination rates among long-term care.


HARDEST-HIT COMMUNITIES

The most deaths have occurred in the state’s populous urban and suburban counties, but the impact per capita has been much greater in rural parts of the state. That’s also often where vaccination rates are the lowest.


A Pioneer Press analysis of rates of COVID-19 cases, deaths and vaccinations found the counties with the most fatalities per capita also had vaccination rates below the state average. Counties where the vaccination rate was higher than the state average had roughly half the rate of deaths.


The state’s highest and lowest death rates are in northern Minnesota. In Kittson County, located in northwestern corner of the state, the rate of COVID deaths was 55 per 10,000 residents. In Cook County, located in the northeastern corner of the state, the rate was 2 per 10,000 residents.


The percentage of residents vaccinated in Kittson County is 58 percent; in Cook County, it is 80 percent.


State data also show Minnesotans of color are more likely to catch the coronavirus, experience a severe case and die than their white neighbors.


Health officials continue to stress that vaccines are the best way to prevent severe COVID-19 and slow the spread of the virus. Hospitals in the state are filling with patients and many of them are unvaccinated, health officials say.


HEALTH SYSTEMS NEAR BRINK

There are 1,645 patients currently hospitalized with COVID-19, including 371 in intensive care. The last time this many Minnesotans were hospitalized with COVID was during December 2020, near the height of the state’s worst surge and before vaccines were widely available.


Of the 130 Minnesota hospitals reporting, 45 percent said they did not have an adult patient bed available. Of the 68 Minnesota hospitals with adult intensive care beds, 84 percent said they had none available.


More than a dozen physicians and health care workers gathered at Hennepin Healthcare in Minneapolis on Wednesday to publicly urge Minnesotans to get vaccinated and to take precautionary measures to help stop the spread of COVID-19.


“Our patients with and without COVID are suffering and dying because of the lack of access to hospitals,” said Dr. Alice Mann, representing the Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians.

It was a plea that mirrored a full-page ad taken out by Minnesota’s hospital systems over the weekend saying the state’s health care systems are “overwhelmed.”


Nursing homes and other assisted-living facilities are also feeling the squeeze. Ongoing staffing shortages and other challenges have about 70 percent of long-term care facilities refusing new patients. Many caregivers are worn out and some have walked away from the job because of the physical and emotional toll.


“They’re are exhausted and they are grieving,” Cullen said. “That’s one of the worst things, the long-term repercussions. We have some folks with post-traumatic stress. And they are still living it.”


MINNESOTA’S BREAKTHROUGH CASES

A growing amount of research shows the protection provided by vaccines wanes considerably after six months and booster shots are recommended for everyone 16 and older.


In recent months, an increasing number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths have been in people who are fully vaccinated. Breakthrough cases represent more than 21 percent of the cases diagnosed this year as well as 18 percent of the hospitalizations and 18.5 percent of the deaths.


The last month of data available from the Minnesota Department of Health, from mid-October to early November, shows that more than 46 percent of those who died had been fully vaccinated.


Health officials say breakthrough rates should not be considered a measure of vaccine efficacy and they maintain that vaccines offer protection from severe infection and death. However, the risk is higher for older people with underlying medical conditions who were vaccinated more than six months ago.


There are new questions emerging about how well vaccines will protect against the omicron variant, which was first identified in Minnesota in early December.


LATEST ON VACCINES, INFECTIONS

The state Department of Health also reported on Wednesday 2,231 new infections, pushing the state’s pandemic total to 971,667.


There also have been 124 deaths suspected to have been caused by COVID-19 since the pandemic’s beginning, but the person who died never had a positive coronavirus test.

Minnesota has administered 8.3 million doses of vaccine and 1.4 million boosters.

On Thursday, state health officials will mark the one-year anniversary of COVID-19 vaccinations in the state.


Dave Orrick contributed to this report.