Pandemic? In Minnesota, Not Yet

The news is all COVID-19, all the time. But how serious is the epidemic so far, here in Minnesota? A friend emailed this analysis, which suggests that the virus has a long way to go–here at least–before it should be causing a panic.

I thought I would share with you the spreadsheet I started last week to summarize the daily MN Dept. of Health COVID-19 status report. The department’s website indicates that it has been collecting data since January 20, which means that we’re almost 60 days into their tracking exercise, with less than 90 reported cases in Minnesota, a state with 5.6 million people; 3.3 million in the Twin Cities metropolitan area (where the cases are presently concentrated).

My lay-person’s observation from this data is that we’re not yet seeing a pandemic in Minnesota. We’re not seeing an exponential growth in the number of positives relative to the number of tests. In fact, the ratio of positives to tests has increased only slightly, even though tests are now being rationed, with only the sickest patients being tested. The media is reporting that, to be tested now, you have to be experiencing major flu symptoms—fever and cough at a minimum—or have had direct exposure to someone who tested positive. For over 1,100 such people tested in the last three days, only 2% tested positive for COVID-19. That is, for over 1,100 people with the flu or direct exposure, only 35 (3%) tested positive.

Compare the above statistics to those of the “Spanish Flu” of 1918 (which was later determined to be H1N1 (bird flu)):

“The hospital at Fort Snelling admitted its first case of influenza on September 27 [1918]. Within ten days, 850 patients had been admitted, most with the flu. Two hundred of those developed pneumonia, with sixty-one deaths.”

“The first case of the influenza in Minnesota was reported on September 25, 1918. The first officially reported came from Wabasha two days later. On September 28, reports were coming in from all parts of Minnesota. More than a thousand cases were reported in Minneapolis alone – less than a week later.”,less%20than%20a%20week%20later.

The 1918 Spanish Flu killed over 10,000 Minnesotans. “It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with [the Spanish Flu] virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States.”

The first COVID-19 cases were reported in China in December. While the virus has spread around the world, after four months, there are fewer than 250,000 cases reported worldwide (per Johns Hopkins daily tracker), in a world with 7.8 billion people. This is not to say that the current social distancing protocols and other protective measures should not be in place. They are undoubtedly helping to contain the spread of the virus. But people in Minnesota (and elsewhere) are acting as if is catching this virus is somehow inevitable, when it presently remains a remote possibility. I think that everyone needs to calm down a bit and use common sense with social distancing, but we also need to think seriously about how much self-inflicted damage we’re doing to our economy and what those consequences will be.