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As virus hits neighbors hard, Minnesota warned not to relax

October 9, 2020 GMT
FILE - In this Sept. 10, 2020, file photo, Kindergarten students practice air hugs while watching a video on how to "greet from 6 feet" during class at Wildwood Elementary in Stillwater, Minn. Students are socially distanced in the classroom and have plexiglass barriers between them and their table mates. (Evan Frost /Minnesota Public Radio via AP, File)
FILE - In this Sept. 10, 2020, file photo, Kindergarten students practice air hugs while watching a video on how to "greet from 6 feet" during class at Wildwood Elementary in Stillwater, Minn. Students are socially distanced in the classroom and have plexiglass barriers between them and their table mates. (Evan Frost /Minnesota Public Radio via AP, File)

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The coronavirus isn’t spreading quite as fast in Minnesota as it has in neighboring states that are among the nation’s worst affected, but Minnesota can’t afford to relax either, state health officials said Friday.

Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, took note of the “alarming stories” coming out of Wisconsin and the Dakotas, which lead the nation in new cases per capita.

“We are not in quite the same situation here in Minnesota, but we’re worried that we have multiple warning lights coming on to our dashboard, and we need to take them seriously,” Ehresmann said at a news briefing.

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Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Minnesotans may have done a better job of taking the risks seriously and observing preventive measures compared with other states. But she said the higher growth rates among Minnesota’s neighbors are a “cautionary tale.”

There were times earlier in the pandemic when Minnesota didn’t look as good as Wisconsin and vice versa, Ehresmann said. She added that they’re grateful for every day that Minnesota is “not in an absolutely hideous place,” but warned, “that could change very quickly.”

Minnesota’s slower transmission is probably a combination of luck and doing some things better, said Dr. John O’Horo, an infectious disease specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Minnesota has a higher rate of testing, which helps officials trace contacts and isolate infected patients. Data shows that Minnesotans are also better than their neighbors at social distancing and limiting their mobility, he said.

“Minnesota is slightly ahead of its neighbors in the Midwest but is still not in a position where we would say we can afford to stand pat and are truly safe,” he said in an interview. “There’s plenty of room for improvement for all these metrics.”

Minnesota’s coronavirus guidelines are generally tougher than its neighbors, including its limits on large gatherings and its statewide mask mandate. Ryan Demmer, an epidemiologist with the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, said in a separate interview that those rules are probably making a difference, too.

Ehresmann disclosed during the briefing that nine people who attended President Donald Trump’s Sept. 18 campaign rally in Bemidji have since tested positive for the coronavirus and that two of them have been hospitalized, including one who is in intensive care. She didn’t know if anyone was infected at Trump’s rally in Duluth on Sept. 30.

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With Trump saying he plans to return to the campaign trail on Monday, Malcolm pointed out that Gov. Tim Walz sent letters to the Trump and Biden campaigns last month asking them to follow the state’s guidelines for public gatherings.

“We still, however, really strongly encourage the avoidance of large, closely packed together crowds, whether indoors or outdoors. ... Masking helps, but distance is extremely key,” she said. “We hope that if the campaigns come back to Minnesota, they do so in a safe way.”