Stock COVID 2

The Free Press and MPR News

MANKATO — Two more COVID-19 deaths confirmed Tuesday in Martin County raised its death toll to 16 during the pandemic.

The two COVID deaths occurred in residents in their early 80s and mid to late 90s, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

South-central Minnesota has now had 64 confirmed COVID deaths during the pandemic.

Starting from when the region’s first COVID case was confirmed in March, it took about five months to reach 32 confirmed COVID deaths. The death toll then doubled to reach 64 over just the past two months — a period during which cases spiked.

Martin County has been particularly hard hit. Its 16 COVID deaths are the second most among the region’s nine counties, only behind Nicollet County’s 17.

Both counties also had new COVID cases confirmed Tuesday. Watonwan County was the sole one in south-central Minnesota without any new cases.

The full list of new cases in the region includes:

• Faribault County — Eight

• Blue Earth County — Four

• Brown County — Four

• Martin County — Three

• Nicollet County — Two

• Waseca County — One

• Le Sueur County — One

• Sibley County — One

Statewide, Gov. Tim Walz and state health officials Tuesday unveiled plans to massively expand COVID-19 testing opportunities across Minnesota as caseloads and hospitalizations continue to climb.

The ramp-up includes new saliva testing sites opening in Moorhead and Winona this week and Brooklyn Park next week. The state is already running a site in Duluth and is building out a lab in the St. Paul suburbs to process the waves of tests expected to follow.

Collectively, Minnesota will be able to process 60,000 tests per day, officials said, about twice what it has managed on its best days to date.

The state also plans to roll out a pilot program in the coming weeks in targeted areas across the state where residents will be able to register online to get a kit delivered to their homes that will let them self-administer a COVID-19 test and send it to a state lab for results.

Dan Huff, an assistant health commissioner, didn’t have a cost estimate for the in-home test. He said a resident’s health insurer would be billed, but that “if you are uninsured or underinsured, you will not receive a bill.”

News of the latest testing push came hours after the health department reported data showing the state’s COVID-19 numbers remain headed in the wrong direction.

Tuesday’s data extended a weeklong trend of newly confirmed cases averaging more than 1,000 a day. The seven-day average of active, confirmed cases in the state remains at a record high.

Hospitalizations are also trending higher. The positive test rate trend remains above 5%, the threshold where officials become concerned.

State health authorities for weeks have been warning the pandemic is far from over.

“The biggest thing we can do to ensure our kids have an opportunity to be in school, that our businesses and restaurants remain open, is to simply follow the science around masking, around social distancing, getting tested,” Walz told reporters Tuesday. “To not do these things will guarantee that others get it.”

Officials had anticipated seeing an October surge in cases expected from Labor Day weekend gatherings, sporting events and college student meetups at the start of fall semester. They also expected the wave would put more people in the hospital. That appears to be happening.

While the spike early in the pandemic was driven largely by illnesses tied to long-term care facilities and workplace sites such as meatpacking plants, officials say the current spread is diffused, making it even harder to trace and isolate cases.

Seven more deaths reported Tuesday raised Minnesota’s toll to 2,151. Among those who’ve died, about 71% had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities; most had underlying health problems.

Follow Brian Arola @BrianArola