ROCHESTER, Minn. -- State health officials reported 526 cases and 22 deaths from COVID-19 on Saturday June, 6, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
The state now has 27,501 laboratory-confirmed cases and 1,170 deaths from the illness.
The new numbers come on the heels of the announcement by Governor Tim Walz on Friday of Phase III of his Stay Safe MN plan. The change turns up the dials towards more permitted gatherings, up to a maximum allowable size of 250 people.
As part of the change, beginning next Wednesday, June 10, restaurants and bars will be able to serve food indoors provided they do not surpass 50% capacity, with salons and places of worship also allowed to operate up to 50% capacity.
Also under this easing of restrictions, for the first time since March, the state will allow indoor performance spaces, gyms and recreational centers to operate, albeit at 25% capacity.
The changes come as health officials highlighted a consistent slowing of the new case rate, while also expressing concerns about the possibility of a second wave in a few weeks due to the mass gatherings now underway. Currently, testing is rising in the state, while case counts are plateauing or modestly declining.
Earlier in the week, health officials advised all those who had attended gatherings to seek testing, and an influx of people getting tested is now being reflected in the state's testing activity. The state on Saturday reported 11,144 new tests, a continuation of three days in which over 38,000 Minnesotans were tested for the virus.
During this same period, the rise in new cases ebbed somewhat, a decidedly hopeful sign.
What remains to be seen is the extent to which the widespread protests and relaxation of restrictions in the past week will cause a new wave of cases in the state.
State commissioner of health Jan Malcolm noted earlier in the week that while protesters often used masks, and that the risk of transmission of COVID-19 diminishes outdoors, the protests made social distancing largely impossible for those who attended. She also noted that the use of chemical irritants by law enforcement -- tear gas and pepper spray -- likely worsened the risk of transmission.
Earlier in the week, a group of over 1,000 public health officials from across the country released a statement that opposed "any use of tear gas, smoke, or other respiratory irritants, which could increase risk for COVID- 19 by making the respiratory tract more susceptible to infection, exacerbating existing inflammation, and inducing coughing." Seattle has now banned the irritants for 30 days.
The state also reported 40 new cases in Rice County on Saturday, and 36 in Mower.
Statewide, the distribution of cases continues to span counties large and small. New graphics recently distributed by the state health department, however, show that while total laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 are concentrated in the metro and in communities along the I-94 north, per capita, the illness is striking outstate and especially southern Minnesota much harder than the greater metro.
The high prevalence of COVID-19 outside the metro could be an artifact of early testing efforts in communities home to meat processing. But as testing for all residents with symptoms becomes more commonplace, and as total tests conducted rises daily, the per capita case count takes on greater value.
In another hopeful sign, ICU use for COVID-19 has now dropped for the last eight days. Currently, 206 ICU beds are in use for the care of COVID-19 in the state, with another 267 beds in use for non-hospitalized care of the illness.
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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.