MANKATO — South-central Minnesota’s rate of positive COVID-19 tests dropped this week for the first time since early November.
The dip ended a stretch of three straight weeks with rising positivity rates — a key measure officials follow to judge the spread of the disease — which resulted in a record-high 15% rate for the nine-county region between Nov. 11-18. Rates higher than 5% are considered concerning.
Although this week’s 10.1% rate is still the third-highest for area counties since the pandemic began, the drop from the previous week could indicate the surge of cases in area counties has peaked.
Another week of data should provide more clarity on where the area counties are trending. As of now, though, there were plenty of reasons for optimism in the numbers this week.
Eight of the nine counties had lower positivity rates than the previous week. Several of them had significant drops, while only Brown County had a slight rise from 12.8% to 13.4%.
Blue Earth and Nicollet counties had similar drops in positivity rates. Blue Earth went from a 14.4% rate to an 8.7% rate week to week, while Nicollet County dropped from 15.7% to 6.3% — the lowest positivity rate in the region this week.
Nicollet County’s rate was also the second-lowest among all counties in Minnesota this week. Blue Earth County’s was the 10th lowest.
The lower rates came from significantly more testing between Nov. 18-25 — a period unaffected by the lack of COVID reporting on Thanksgiving. Blue Earth County had 26.3% more tests completed this week and Nicollet County had 83% more testing.
South-central Minnesota had more tests completed between Nov. 18-25 than during any previous week of the pandemic. The 19,756 tests completed in the nine counties were about a 32% increase from the prior week.
Last week all nine area counties had positivity rates higher than 10%. This week there were only five surpassing the 10% threshold, Le Sueur, Sibley, Brown, Martin and Waseca counties.
Le Sueur County had the highest positivity rate this week at 15.3%, down from 18.6% in the prior week. Sibley County’s 14.6% rate was next highest, a drop from 19.7% in the county the week before.
Waseca County’s rate dropped from 15.8% to 11% over the two weeks. Martin County’s drop was more gradual, going from 12.2% to 11.3%.
Along with Blue Earth and Nicollet counties, the others with rates lower than 10% this week were Watonwan County at 9.6% and Faribault County at 7.8% — the sixth-lowest rate in the state. Watonwan County had a 17.6% rate the previous week and Faribault County had an 11.6% rate.
Minnesota’s overall rate of positive tests trended downward in recent days as well. After a rare week where south-central Minnesota’s rate surpassed the statewide total, area counties and their combined 10.1% rate were back below the state average of about 11.1% this week.
As for whether the state has reached a pandemic peak yet, officials were skeptical earlier this week. New hospitalizations topped 300 for a second straight day Wednesday, and were still high in Friday’s release at 277.
Daily case rates showed gradual improvement. The 5,704 cases reported statewide would have set a record as little as three weeks ago, but is way down from 7,877 recorded on Nov. 19.
During a briefing with reporters earlier this week, Minnesota health commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters it’s too early to tell if the lower numbers are a sign of the worst stretch being behind us. She noted how high hospital admissions still were.
“We would not consider that we have any sort of a reliable trend just yet,” she said. “While we’ve certainly been pleased to see somewhat lower case counts in recent days, we think that this might be another of those patterns that we’ve seen earlier in the epidemic.”
It’s possible, she added, for the state to be in a trough between waves. More data will be needed to tell if the state is truly on the downside of a peak.
Even if case counts and positivity rates continue to drop, there’s potential for deaths from COVID to spike in the coming weeks. Upticks in deaths lag weeks behind upticks in cases and hospitalizations due to the progression of the illness.
It means the state and south-central region’s recent spike in deaths likely stems from lower case numbers and lower positivity rates from back in October. So if the peak for cases and positivity rates was in mid-November, the corresponding uptick in deaths wouldn’t start being confirmed until well into December.
Recent restrictions on indoor dining, gyms and bars were put in place to try limit spread so COVID patients don’t overwhelm hospitals. Staffing is just as much of an issue for health care facilities, as health workers continue to catch the virus out in the community.
Health officials say continued vigilance will be needed for Minnesota and the region to get through the holiday period.
“The only way we can do it is by being safe, masking, social distancing, and robust hand hygiene,” said Dr. Amy Williams, dean of Mayo Clinic Practice, during her briefing with reporters earlier this week.