ROCHESTER, Minn. — For now, state health officials are not telling everyone who attended one of the many large protests over the weekend to get a test for COVID-19.
But they are asking them to watch closely for symptoms, and encouraging those with symptoms to seek testing. Moreover, they may soon ask all who attended a crowded protest to get consider getting tested, symptoms or not.
"We're concerned that all Minnesotans, but especially our hard-hit communities, might faced added risk associated with the large gatherings over the weekend," said state commissioner of health Jan Malcolm during an afternoon call with reporters.
Besides the large, confined crowds, Malcolm cited the calling, shouting and loud talking as means of promoting spread at protests.
"This is happening the context of many people already moving away from social distancing with the partial lifting of mitigation on June 1." Malcolm said. "With people coming together, health workers have been reminding everyone that we are in the midst of an active epidemic, and that we need to continue to take steps to limit the risk of spread."
"There's an incubation period for COVID-19," said Minnesota Department of Health Director of Infectious disease Kris Ehresmann. "It's not instantaneous that someone would get something today and start showing (test-detectable) signs of disease right away. But we definitely are going to be encouraging people who participated to consider getting tested and reaching out to their healthcare provider."
Health officials opened the conference by affirming their position that racism is embedded in the state's institutions, and that discrimination is a driver of health inequities in the state. Health officials have also said that gathering in peaceful protest is a necessary and worthy form of expression, apart from its effects on the outbreak.
"We released a report six years ago explicitly naming structural racism and the inequitable distribution of opportunity as the root causes of persistent and glaring health disparities in Minnesota," said Malcolm. "For people of color and American Indians in Minnesota, these disparities are some of the worst in the nation."
Structural racism has shown itself in prevalence rates for the COVID-19 outbreak in the state. Malcolm said African-Americans make up 6.6 % of the state's population, but over 22% of the state's COVID-19 cases, and over 20% of all COVID-19 hospitalizations.
Hispanic Minnesotans, Malcolm added, make up just 5.5.% of the state's population, but nearly 20% of all cases and 13% of the state's COVID-19 hospitalizations.
On Saturday, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms took an aggressive position, saying, “If you were out protesting, you probably need to go get a COVID test this week." Minnesota officials counter that such an early battery of asymptomatic tests would likely not be accurate.
"One thing we know about testing," said Malcolm, "is that if it's done too early, even if someone has been infected, a test may not pick up a positive if they are not far enough into that incubation period."
"That's why we are not saying everybody go out and get tested now. We are working on plans for that — the communications, the best guidance and education we can give to people. But just the fact of the incubation period and the optimal time for testing all influences the planning that we're doing now."
Health officials say they did not have observers in the field for the protests, and conceded that much of their recommendations had gone out the window, even with the distribution and common sight of protesters wearing masks.
"It is hard to maintain a six foot distance at a rally," said state epidemiologist Dr. Ruth Lynfield. "People were trying their best, given the circumstances, and this is something we will just need to follow."
Health officials also addressed the effects on contact tracing of a potential post-protest wave of new cases.
"By the very nature of the event, people are going to likely not know who they were in contact with," Malcolm said. "That's not just a scale problem, but a practical problem of not being able to identify contacts in the same way."
But "many people might have gone with a friend or family member," Lynfield said, "and the risk is primarily being in close proximity to someone — especially if you are outside. Even though there are very big crowds in many situations, people will know who they've gone with."
The health department on Monday reported a sharp drop off in new cases of COVID-19 with just 361 cases, a welcome reduction after days of new daily case totals nearly twice that amount.
But the state also reported high testing over the last three days. On Monday, the state reported that 6,073 tests were conducted Sunday, all by private labs.
State offices near the Capitol building were closed over the weekend and the health department lab did not conduct testing Saturday or Sunday.
Just last week, there were 510 new cases reported Wednesday and 493 Thursday. The 361 positive cases on 6,073 tests Monday comes out to a 5.9% case rate, half that reported in recent weeks.
Health officials also reported 10 deaths from COVID-19 on Monday, bringing the state death toll to 1,050. One death was reported in Wright County, two in Dakota County, four in Ramsey County, and three in Hennepin County.
Seven of the 10 deaths reported Monday were recorded among residents of assisted living and one among residents of a group home.
Intensive care unit use dropped by 10 beds to 253 beds now in use treating COVID-19, with another 296 persons hospitalized for the illness in non-ICU settings.
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Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 hotline: 651-201-3920.
COVID-19 discrimination hotline: 833-454-0148
Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 website: Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) website.