Cases are rising, but more restrictions aren’t necessary

Of recent, Minnesota has been on the news, and not for a good reason – cases are rising in our state compared to most. For all its strict restrictions, Minnesota has been labeled a COVID-19 hotspot.

The fact that our cases are rising while we have stringent restrictions is perhaps the latest sign that lockdowns contribute very little to improved COVID-19 outcomes. This is why Gov. Walz’s decision not to impose more restrictions in response to the surge would be a good idea if he follows through.

But leaving aside the fact that restrictions don’t work, this new surge is different from the other ones before in important ways, making restrictions even more unnecessary. For one, the new rise in cases has not been linked to a corresponding significant uptick in deaths and will likely remain so. This is mainly because the majority of our most vulnerable populations –people aged 65 and older– have been vaccinated.

As reported by the Star Tribune,

Minnesota ranked 10th worst among states for its rate of new infections, and 12th worst for the rate of new COVID-19 hospital admissions, according to the latest White House COVID-19 Team state report. However, the state only had the 40th highest rate of COVID-19 deaths in the seven-day period ending April 1.

Hospital leaders have reported fewer deaths and better outcomes among the latest cases — with the average age of hospitalized patients dropping from the mid-60s to the mid-50s — but said the sheer numbers are putting pressure on their capacity at a time when they are treating many non-COVID patients as well.

In fact, most of the rise in cases has been concentrated among younger people who face a very low risk of serious illness and death due to COVID-19.

Of course the media loves to focus on the positivity rate i.e., the total number of new COVID-19 cases divided by number of tests. This is a measure that does not say much since it is highly influenced by the number of tests conducted.

For instance, on March 28th, Minnesota recorded 1227 new COVID-19 cases with a positivity rate of 3.92%. In contrast, on March 30th, with a similar number of cases – 1278– Minnesota’s positivity rate was 8.92%. Total tests conducted on March 28th were more than two times higher than those conducted on March 30th.

To the extent that the new rise in cases is overwhelming our health system, there is reason to worry. However, officials and Walz should keep in mind that current ICU COVID-19 hospitalizations are still significantly down from Minnesota’s peak last Nov/Dec. If anything, the reduction in Minnesota’s ICU capacity in recent months is to blame for the current pressure on hospital capacity.

Figure 1: Current hospital capacity

Source: Minnesota Department of Health

Figure 2: ICU capacity, November 2020