Minnesota’s officials need to be honest about Covid-19

On Monday, Bring Me the News reported:

Minnesota health officials believe the partial shutdown of bars, restaurants and entertainment venues helped slow the spread of COVID-19 and send Minnesota into a better place than it was before Gov. Tim Walz ordered the shutdown mid-November. 

“We’ve seen the impact of the dial back process and policies that the governor put in place and Minnesotans have worked hard to follow and make good decisions,” said Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm, adding during a Monday press call that the partial shutdown “clearly helped to change the pandemic’s trajectory this fall and safe lives.” 

The rate of new cases and the positivity rate were falling before the latest shutdown began

But we haven’t seen that. As I wrote yesterday:

Figure 1 shows Department of Health data for newly diagnosed cases and newly diagnosed cases as a share of all tests – the positivity rate – averaged over seven days. We see that the number of new cases peaked with an average of 6,871 in the seven days up to and including November 13th – one week before Gov. Walz’ shutdown of bars and restaurants went into effect on November 20th. The positivity rate likewise peaked and began falling before bars and restaurants were shutdown: at 18.6% in the seven days up to and including November 10th.

Figure 1: New Covid-19 cases and share of tests positive in Minnesota, seven day moving average

Source: Department of Health

Both the rate of new cases and the positivity rate were falling before the latest shutdown began on November 20th.

Bring Me the News further reported:

In December, Gov. Tim Walz said Minnesota’s “post-Thanksgiving drop-off has been steeper than our surrounding states,” giving credit to the closure of dine-in service at bars and restaurants and full shutdown of fitness centers, which have since been allowed to reopen partially. 

Walz’s sentiment was echoed Monday by Malcolm, who said Minnesota’s recent surge didn’t have as high nor as long of a peak as neighboring states, and that Minnesota’s rate of decrease was “slightly steeper than other Midwest states,” which she credited to Minnesotans make smart decisions and Walz’s executive order. 

But, again, we don’t see this in the data. As I wrote last month:

Figure 2 shows data from The COVID Tracking Project for Minnesota and its neighbors for the number of new cases per million of the population averaged over seven days. We see the same pattern in each state. There is a marked upward surge in the rate of new cases between mid-August and mid-September rising to peaks in mid-November, before falling away quite rapidly up to the present.

Figure 2: New cases of Covid-19 per million of the population, seven day moving average

Source: The COVID Tracking Project

This is in spite of the various policies pursued by these states. On mask mandates, for example, Minnesota has had one in place since July 25th, Wisconsin since August 1st, North Dakota since November 14th, Iowa since November 17th, and South Dakota not at all. Both Iowa and North Dakota could point to the fact that their imposition of mask mandates came at the peak of new cases and was followed by a sharp decline and deduce that they were successful. But the evidence of the other three states ought to give them pause. Minnesota and Wisconsin have long had mandates in place, South Dakota hasn’t, and all got hit with a surge at more or less the same time that subsided at the same time.

So it is with shutdowns. The New York Times notes that businesses are ‘Mostly open’ in all of Minnesota’s neighbors with our state the only one of the five where they are ‘Mostly closed’. Even so, when it comes to cases, we have seen a pattern little different to that in Wisconsin, Iowa, South Dakota, or North Dakota.

Minnesotans have been complying

Yesterday, Kris Ehresmann, Director of Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Prevention and Control at the Deptartment of Health, was interviewed on MPR. Reportedly, she said:

If she said this, it is just not true. As I wrote last month:

Since July 25th, a statewide mask mandate has been in force in Minnesota with the intention of slowing the spread of Covid-19. When he announced it, Gov. Tim Walz said:

“If we can get a 90 to 95% compliance, which we’ve seen the science shows, we can reduce the infection rates dramatically, which slows that spread and breaks that chain”

Data show that Gov. Walz’ ambitions for mask wearing have been met.

Carnegie Mellon Univeristy’s COVIDcast Real-time COVID-19 Indicators report the percentage of people wearing masks based on surveys of Facebook users. As Figure 1 shows, as of November 30th, 94.74% of Minnesotans were reported to be wearing masks most or all of the time while in public.

Figure 1: Percentage of people who wear a mask most or all of the time while in public

Source: COVIDcast

There is some variation within the state, as Figure 2 shows, but not very much. While the highest share of mask mandate compliance is found in Hennepin County, with 97.54% of people wearing a mask most or all of the time while in public, the low, recorded in ‘Rest of Minnesota’, is a still impressive 92.28%.

Figure 2: Percentage of people who wear a mask most or all of the time while in public

Source: COVIDcast

Minnesotans deserve the truth

The people of this state have sacrificed much in the fight against Covid-19. They deserve the truth. And they do not deserve to have their sacrifices downplayed to cover for the fact that certain policies – like shutdowns and mask mandates – are not the silver bullet they were sold as.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.