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Minnesota's COVID-19 death toll tops 10,000

15December 2021

Minnesota has surpassed 10,000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths, officials announced Wednesday, a grim reminder of the cost of the pandemic in 2021 even after vaccines became available.

The Minnesota Department of Health reported 54 more COVID-19 deaths confirmed by testing, raising the total to 10,018. Another 124 deaths since the start of the pandemic in March 2020 were likely because of COVID-19 but weren’t confirmed by testing.

“There is a heaviness, for sure, hitting this sort of a marker and the fact that we have had so many deaths this year even after we have more tools available to protect against it,” state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said. “Every death is a terrible loss. The more tools we have and the more preventable these things truly are, the more heartbreaking it is that we still are losing people.”

Minnesota’s losses in the past three months included the state’s first four teenagers to die of COVID-19, as well as farmers, teachers, corrections officers and mechanics. In the past month, the state lost a former police chief, chemistry professor and an aerospace engineer.

On Wednesday, friends and relatives mourned at a memorial service for Jose Juan Lopez Quezada, the 43-year-old owner of the popular Rancho Grande restaurant in Buffalo who died of COVID-19 on Nov. 12. On Nov. 13, guitarist Robert Walker played a cover of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” at the Old Muni in Cook in far northeastern Minnesota in memory of drummer and bandmate Peter Garman. The 55-year-old died of COVID-19 on Nov. 6.

“That’s for our brother,” Walker said as the last guitar chord faded.

A pandemic wave caused by the fast-spreading delta variant of the coronavirus this fall has quickened the toll in Minnesota. It took 188 days from March to September for Minnesota to go from 7,000 to 8,000 deaths, but then 58 days to reach 9,000 and 35 days to reach 10,000, according to state health data.

State health officials are hopeful that an uptick in vaccinations and booster doses has slowed the wave. Minnesota’s coronavirus infection rate has declined since Dec. 6, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and ranks seventh-worst among states after being the worst in the nation in November.

Sixteen doctors and front-line caregivers from the Minnesota Medical Association gathered Wednesday to urge vaccinations and protections such as mask-wearing and social distancing during the holidays. More than half the COVID-19 deaths have occurred in inpatient wards or emergency rooms, and the doctors said they are worn down by life-saving attempts that failed.

Dr. Shirlee Xie, a hospitalist at Hennepin Healthcare, described in tears a text she received at 5 a.m. Wednesday from her husband, who works at another hospital. “He and his partners had just spent two hours trying to save the life of a young woman, unvaccinated, who had been hospitalized with COVID,” she said. “And in the end, they had to tell her family that they couldn’t save her life and that she was never going to come home.”

The latest wave is not as severe as last fall’s, which increased Minnesota’s deaths from 3,000 to more than 5,000 in a month.

But doctors said the losses this fall have been frustrating because they involved infections that were preventable and clogged hospital capacity. The 1,645 COVID-19 hospitalizations in Minnesota on Tuesday included 371 patients receiving intensive care, who along with non-COVID patients left the state with only 17 open adult ICU beds.

Some non-COVID deaths can be linked to the lack of critical care availability in hospitals now, said Dr. Hannah Lichtsinn, an internist with Hennepin Healthcare. “Indefinitely postponing my patient’s hip replacement? That’s failure. The death of a Minnesota veteran who died because there was not an ICU bed available in our state? That’s failure.”

Despite losing more people than the population of Little Falls, Minnesota has the 38th lowest rate of COVID-19 mortality among states since the start of the pandemic. Kris Ehresmann, state infectious disease director, credited COVID-19 vaccination progress in Minnesota, where more than 93% of seniors are fully vaccinated. More than 70% of vaccinated seniors also have received boosters.

Based on estimates from a Commonwealth Fund study, Minnesota might have seen another 7,000 COVID-19 deaths this year without its current level of vaccination, Ehresmann said. “Where we are at is sobering, but it could have been more sobering.”

The state reported 839 COVID-19 breakthrough deaths this year, but the mortality rate in fully vaccinated Minnesotans is many times lower when considering they make up more than two-thirds of the population but the minority of deaths, Ehresmann said.

Risks of COVID-19 mortality have been highest in seniors, but the age trend has been shifting. The average age of COVID-19 deaths was 81 last year, but 75 so far this year. The share of deaths involving long-term care residents was 64% for those reported in 2020 but 35% in 2021.

Of 133 COVID-19 deaths involving people younger than 40, state death records show that 53 occurred since the start of September.

Relatives are raising money to support the wife and young daughter of Bradly Sullivan, a 34-year-old materials manager from Monticello who died Nov. 19 after being hospitalized with COVID-19 complications on Oct. 17.

“How many people can say they met their significant other when they were 5 and later became high school sweethearts?” his wife, Tiffany, asked on a social media posting. “We’ve lived a beautiful, messy and wonderful life together, and I am so blessed to have spent this time with you.”

The majority of COVID-19 deaths among younger people involved patients with underlying health conditions, mostly chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and asthma. However, Ehresmann said there has been an increase in the latest wave of younger people dying despite having only one or no underlying conditions — mostly in the unvaccinated.

The state on Wednesday reported another 2,231 infections, raising the total to 971,667. Even if infections decline, health officials expect Minnesota’s COVID-19 death numbers to remain high through December. Changes in the trend of COVID-19 deaths have tended to come four weeks after changes in infection numbers.

“When you look at deaths in Minnesota, just imagine the Vikings stadium and taking up a section of the stadium with the number of people that have died,” said Adriene Thornton, a nurse infection preventionist at Children’s Minnesota, which has lost two unvaccinated pediatric patients to COVID-19.

Staff Writer Glenn Howatt and Graphics and Data Visuals Editor C.J. Sinner contributed to this article.

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