May 27—MANKATO — The percent of COVID-19 tests coming back positive reached its lowest point on record in south-central Minnesota this week, the latest sign of an improving pandemic picture in the region.
Nine area counties combined for about a 2.4% positivity rate between May 19-26, according to test and case data derived from the Minnesota Department of Health's weekly report. This week's rate is a drop from 3.4% during the prior week — rates below 5% are considered encouraging.
Since county-level testing numbers became available in June 2020, the previous lowest rate of positive tests was 3% during the week ending on Feb. 3.
Between early February and this week, the regional rate rose to as high as 7.1% in early April before a consistently downward trend since. South-central Minnesota's trend is also generally following the encouraging, statewide rates in recent weeks.
Minnesota's latest seven-day rolling average for positivity rates was at about 2.5% in the latest update. Gov. Tim Walz noted the state's encouraging metrics Thursday when he announced new incentives for Minnesotans getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
"There is nothing in the numbers that indicate we're seeing any rise at all," he said. "That will only get better as the vaccination rates go up."
South-central Minnesota's new low for positivity rates came on about the same level of testing as the week before. A roughly 30% drop in cases between May 19-26 contributed to the low rate.
The state and region appear to be in good positions with positivity rates reaching low points just as the level of restrictions reach low points as well, said Derek J. Wingert, a local data analyst with the COVID Tracking Project. The state's last remaining limits on outdoor and indoor activities end Friday.
"My expectation is continued gradual improvements as the summer goes along," Wingert said. "Regardless of what happens from here, to have gotten here is a lot of sunshine that we very much needed."
Positivity rates could always bump back up as testing winds down further, but it wouldn't necessarily mean the illness is circulating at high rates in communities. If fewer people seek testing as a precaution because they're vaccinated, while a higher proportion of those still seeking testing are sick, the positivity rate could sharply rise without a huge uptick in people spreading the illness in a community.
It just makes other metrics like how much testing there was and how many cases there were even more important for context. Comparing regional trends to statewide trends also can help.
Another encouraging sign at a local level was the drop in positive tests at Mankato Clinic this week. The clinic had 3.1% of tests come back positive, down from 4% during the previous week.
This week's health department data for south-central Minnesota came with one question mark, but it'd be highly unlikely to change the record-low positivity rate. Sibley County's test total appeared to stay the same from the previous week despite an uptick in new cases.
The 2.4% regional rate is based on if Sibley County had about an average testing week compared to the last two months of data. Even if the county had a huge drop in testing, causing a jump in its positivity rate, that wouldn't make enough of a difference to raise the region's combined rate past 3% — Sibley is one of the least populous counties in the region.
Positivity rates have been consistently below 5% regionwide over the last month, but this week was also the first time all nine area counties came in below 5%.
Blue Earth County, where the biggest chunk of testing happens, had a drop from 3% to 2.8%. Nicollet County's rate was the highest this week, meanwhile, rising from 2.4% to 4.1%.
Daily case counts
As for new cases confirmed in the region Thursday, a slight rise ended south-central Minnesota's run of days with fewer than 20.
Area counties combined for 23 new cases, according to the Department of Health. None of the previous five days had more than 20, a first since summer 2020.
The south-central region again had no new COVID-19 deaths, keeping its pandemic death toll at 243.
May's death toll in the region already surpassed April's total. But both April and May are well below the tolls from August 2020 to March 2021.
There were 10 more COVID-19 deaths statewide, however, the third straight day with double-digit fatalities. The last time Minnesota had a three-day stretch with 10 or more deaths linked to the illness was about three weeks ago.
Minnesota's pandemic death toll rose to 7,403.
Of the 23 new cases confirmed in the area Thursday, Blue Earth County's six were the most. Nicollet and Le Sueur counties each had four.
All nine area counties had at least one new case. The full list of new cases by county includes:
* Blue Earth County — 6
* Nicollet County — 4
* Le Sueur County — 4
* Brown County — 2
* Faribault County — 2
* Martin County — 2
* Waseca County — 1
* Watonwan County — 1
* Sibley County — 1
The region is on track for another drop in weekly case counts, which would be the fourth straight week with declining numbers. Friday's update will determine how big the drop will be.
Follow Brian Arola @BrianArola