Area counties see biggest jump in new COVID-19 cases since January

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Brian Arola, The Free Press, Mankato, Minn.
·4 min read
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Mar. 18—MANKATO — South-central Minnesota's uptick in new COVID-19 cases Thursday was the region's biggest in more than two months.

Area counties combined for 93 newly confirmed cases, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. The last time the nine counties combined for more new cases was Jan. 9.

More encouragingly, the counties again had no newly confirmed deaths linked to COVID-19. The region's pandemic death toll remains at 224 in the health department's data.

Minnesota had six more confirmed COVID-19 deaths statewide Thursday. The state's pandemic death toll rose to 6,762.

Case counts within the nine-county region had been staying mostly in the 50s or 60s per day in March before Thursday. With Thursday's spike in cases, the region's weekly total could rise for the second straight week if Friday's total also comes in high.

Blue Earth County's 29 new cases were the most in the south-central region. Brown, Le Sueur and Faribault counties all had new cases in the double digits.

All nine area counties had at least two new cases.

The full list of newly confirmed cases by county includes:

* Blue Earth County — 29

* Brown County — 19

* Le Sueur County — 13

* Faribault County — 12

* Martin County — 7

* Nicollet County — 4

* Watonwan County — 4

* Sibley County — 3

* Waseca County — 2

Statewide, case counts and hospitalizations are starting to rise again slowly, but the overall vaccination pace continues to struggle for traction.

The health department Thursday reported about 36,000 more vaccinations. The seven-day trend is now running just under 40,000 shots daily, roughly what it's been for the past two weeks.

The flat-to-declining pace isn't necessarily a problem as Minnesota expects to see federal vaccine shipments jump soon. State officials, though, are increasingly anxious about the growth in cases tied to the highly contagious U.K. COVID-19 variant and to youth sports.

More than 764,000 people — nearly 14% of the state's population — have completed their vaccinations, while more than 1.3 million — 23.4% — have received at least one dose, including more than 77% of people age 65 and older.

In south-central Minnesota, 31,888 people — about 13.7% of the population — have completed their vaccinations. A total of 55,955 people — about 24.1% of the population — have at least one dose.

State officials offered some upbeat news Wednesday on the vaccine front: Minnesota may start receiving 100,000 doses a week of the J&J vaccine in April. Because it requires only one dose, it could speed the pace of vaccinations. The state received about 45,000 doses in early March but relatively little since then.

Minnesota on Thursday also passed two milestones in the pandemic: Cases have topped 500,000 and there are now more than 2 million shots in arms.

COVID-19 numbers statewide show disease conditions relatively stable compared to the late fall surge, but there are some caution lights flashing.

There has been a noticeable rise recently in the number of known, active cases. Thursday's data shows 9,338 cases, marking seven consecutive days with active counts above 8,000, a stretch not seen since late January.

While current counts are still very low compared to late November and early December, the increase is notable given the concerns about the rise of the U.K. COVID-19 strain in Minnesota.

Hospitalization rates remain mostly at levels last seen before the late-fall surge in cases, but there has been a noticeable uptick: 297 people were hospitalized as of Wednesday, with 74 needing intensive care. The number of ICU patients has doubled since March 6.

An outbreak of cases on the eastern end of the Iron Range prompted the health department to announce a free testing site in the area starting Monday.

"We are increasingly concerned about dramatic increases in cases, particularly in St. Louis County. Right now Aurora is at the heart of this COVID-19 hotspot, which is spreading to neighboring counties," Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said in a statement Thursday. "It is essential folks on the East Range have access to easy and no-cost testing."

Follow Brian Arola @BrianArola