Apr. 29—MANKATO — COVID-19 test sites in the Mankato area had high positivity rates during the last week, indicating how widely the coronavirus is still circulating in area communities.
The percentage of positive tests came in well above 5% over the past week at Mankato Clinic and Mayo Clinic Health System facilities. Health experts have pointed to 5% or higher rates as a threshold for concern about community spread.
Mankato Clinic had 6.1% of tests come back positive between April 21-28, while Mayo Clinic Health System's southwest Minnesota region had a 9.8% positivity rate during the same period.
The clinic numbers come as the statewide and south-central regionwide rates seemed to hold steady this week, according to data derived from the Minnesota Department of Health. The south-central region — including Blue Earth County, Nicollet County and seven other counties — includes areas where the Mayo health system and Mankato Clinic don't have facilities.
Weekly test and case data from the state health department showed a 4.36% test positivity rate in the nine-county region between April 21-28, about level with the 4.4% rate from last week. Individual county rates came in as high as 10.2% in Martin County and as low as 2.2% in Nicollet County.
Taken together, the various rates at the regional, county and clinic levels suggest south-central Minnesota is in a better position than it was during the pandemic's peak in late 2020 but worse off than the 3% to 4% rates in February.
Gaining ground on the virus has proven to be a struggle, said Derek J. Wingert, a local analyst with the COVID Tracking Project.
"Despite a rise in cases this week, improved rates of testing led our region to a very slight decrease in positivity rate, sharing in the modest improvements statewide," he said in a statement. "We do, however, remain extremely close to the official 5% level of heightened concern, and experience from the past few months has taught us how quickly outbreaks can spread and set our progress back."
He also noted what health officials have been saying, that the variants spreading in the community seem to be hitting younger people harder than what was circulating previously.
State health officials said Minnesota's vaccine progress would likely stave off a similar surge of cases, hospitalizations and deaths as happened in the fall. Their concerns are now partly centered around preventing contagious variants from getting a stronger foothold in the state, especially among younger populations that aren't as widely vaccinated yet.
"The impact of the variants remains a wild card," said Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm on Wednesday. "We're certainly hopeful with the recent apparent kind of leveling off in the case rates, although still at a very high level. We're certainly not declaring victory yet."
COVID-19 is less likely to prove deadly among young people, although the illness can have other serious short- and long-term health impacts. The recent death of a first grader in Marshall also served as a tragic reminder of how young people can die from COVID-19 complications.
There were no newly confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the south-central region Thursday, after having two Wednesday. Another 15 deaths linked to the illness statewide raised Minnesota's pandemic death toll to 7,128.
Area counties again had a relatively high daily uptick in new COVID-19 cases Thursday.
The south-central region combined for 83 newly confirmed cases, according to the health department. It had 84 cases confirmed on Wednesday, up from 47 and 46 on the previous two days.
For new cases, Blue Earth County's 23 were the most in the region. Nicollet, Brown and Le Sueur counties all had at least 10 as well.
All nine area counties had at least three new cases. The full list of new cases by county includes:
* Blue Earth County — 23
* Nicollet County — 12
* Brown County — 12
* Le Sueur County — 12
* Martin County — 9
* Faribault County — 5
* Waseca County — 4
* Watonwan County — 3
* Sibley County — 3
Statewide, Minnesota's COVID-19 picture continues to improve overall, with cases and hospitalizations trending down off the top of a recent wave. Officials, though, remain concerned about the flattening pace of vaccinations — and that some Minnesotans are late for their second shot.
Public health leaders continue to urge Minnesotans to keep their guard up during proms, graduations and other events to protect against spreading the disease, noting that more contagious COVID-19 variants are driving new cases across the state.
Officials Thursday also said they've confirmed 22 COVID-19 cases linked to recent protests in Brooklyn Center over the police killing of Daunte Wright. Half of those cases were found among law enforcement.
The health department urged anyone at the protests to get tested.
The count of known, active cases came in at 14,741 in Thursday's numbers, slightly higher than the prior day but still down from the most recent peak of about 20,000 in mid-April. The seven-day trend line is at its lowest point in more than three weeks.
Hospitalizations had been climbing the past few weeks, hovering at levels not seen since January.
Thursday's numbers showed 644 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Minnesota; 176 needed intensive care. Both figures are down from the prior week. Hospitalizations can often stay higher for several weeks following an increase in active cases.
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