COVID-19 still infecting Native Minnesotans

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A Covid-19 vaccine poster from the Indian Health Board. Minnesota’s tribal nations are ahead of the general public in getting members vaccinated, but estimated 78 percent of Minnesota’s Native population lives off reservations and tribal lands. (Courtesy of IHS.)

Lee Egerstrom

Minnesotans were told they can return to more “normal” activity as April came to an end although, it appears, the new “normal” also means a cautious lifestyle in the months ahead.

Readers can get swamped by COVID-19 news and statistics that change daily. At month’s end, however, Minnesota data kept by the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) do show state numbers improving for Natives and other communities in the state.

Using U.S. Census Bureau numbers that may underestimate Minnesota’s Native population, given that many Indigenous people have multiple ethnic and racial identities, health reports suggest Native impacts from the global coronavirus pandemic is close to the norm for all Minnesota groups.

In monthly data released April 30, MDH researchers used the Census estimate that American Indians and Alaska Natives (AIAN) represent about 1 percent of Minnesota’s total population. They currently account for 1 percent of all COVID-19 cases in Minnesota, 2 percent of hospitalizations, 2 percent of the more serious Intensive Care Unit (ICU) hospitalization, and 1 percent of Minnesota’s 7,144 cumulative deaths from the virus.
Actual numbers may be higher since Native Minnesotans are known to be found across different ethnic and racial lines.

A category for people identified as multiracial and non-Hispanic account for 2 percent of Minnesota’s population. MDH researchers said they also accounted for 2 percent of all Minnesota diagnosed cases, 3 percent of hospitalizations and ICU hospitalizations, and 1 percent of total deaths.

These numbers included 16 additional Minnesota deaths and 1,877 new cases of the virus tallied that day. This is a statistic, not a source of comfort for the sickened or their loved ones.

What is positive about the data is that it represents a statistical improvement, a measure that we are making progress after another wave of COVID-19 infections in early April. The threat to health, however, is still with us.

In First World countries where COVID-19 testing is widespread, the World Health Organization (WHO) said testing samples should have less than 5 percent positive rates before states, provinces and countries reopen their economies from virus safety precautions.

The month-end data for Minnesota showed the positive rate had fallen below that benchmark, to 4.57 percent.

With similar progress reported across the nation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new guidelines in late April for going about activities outdoors. Masks are no longer required outdoors unless in confined areas with others who may not be vaccinated or may be spreaders of the virus.

Athletic events are returning to more “normal” activity, often with limited seating capacity. Other groups are planning events that will also require cautious social distancing. At the same time, a MDH spokesman said on April 30 that a “common sense” approach to more activity outdoors is this: “If you can breathe other people’s air, wear a mask. Keep a safe distance.”

State health officials are still worried about more infectious variant strains that are widespread in Minnesota, such as the so-called “UK variant.” The three vaccines now available in Minnesota are known to limit the severity of the virus if one does become infected even after receiving the vaccine.

More than 2.5 million Minnesotans had received at least one dose of vaccine by the end of April, and 1.9 million had completed the one-dose (Johnson & Johnson) or two-dose (Pfizer or Moderna) forms of the vaccination. That represents 57 percent of the state’s eligible population.

The state has expanded sites for getting vaccinations, including locations at the Mall of America and State Fairgrounds in the Twin Cities metro area to reach high school students before spring-time proms and graduations.

A state health spokesman said Minnesota’s tribal nations are ahead of the general public in getting members vaccinated. At the same time, however, and estimated 78 percent of Minnesota’s Native population lives off reservations and tribal lands.

In short, as April gives way to May, numbers are looking up in Minnesota even as the threat lingers. One day’s good news is often challenged by seemingly conflicting events the next day.

Elders, and especially those living in long-term care facilities, have been the most likely to have severe bouts with the virus and lose their lives. This group is now highly vaccinated. At the same time, a first grade student at Marshall, in southwestern Minnesota, died of the virus on April 25. The new variant strain of the virus is hitting younger people.

Minnesota still experiences turmoil that brings people out of homes and onto the streets. Minnesota news media reported April 30 that 22 COVID-19 cases have now been traced to protests in Brooklyn Center following the policy shooting of Daunte Wright on April 11.

This outbreak followed a week on nightly protests in the Minneapolis suburb. Of the 22 cases linked to the civil unrest, 11 involved demonstrators and 11 involved law enforcement personnel.

Kris Ehresmann, director of infectious disease control for MDH, said anyone who may have been infected at the protests should get tested, self-quarantine and watch for possible symptoms.

Other ongoing problems associated with COVID-19 will also likely linger in Minnesota and impact the Native communities.

In early April, the Minnesota Hospital Association reported many of its healthcare facilities were struggling financially in 2018-2019 before the pandemic high.

On a more positive note, Gov. Tim Walz announced on April 15 that Minnesota had received $135 million in federal relief funds to support child care through support for child care providers and low-income families financially harmed by the pandemic.

And at month’s end, the Minneapolis Federal Research Bank issued a report (cited below) that determined nursing homes were in financial trouble before the pandemic hit in the Upper Midwest.  Tu-Uyen Tran, a senior writer for the Fed, said costs for providing nursing home care keep rising and will have increased substantially with the pandemic. Nursing home beds are disappearing as many such homes providing housing and care for elders are failing.

In Minnesota, he wrote, the median daily rate of a shared room at a nursing home was $363 compared to a $33 median hourly cost for a home health aide who may work a few hours each day.

COVID fighting progress notwithstanding, impacts from the coronavirus crisis will be long lasting.

Information on the COVID-19 situation in Minnesota can be found at https://www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/coronavirus/situation.html and https://www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/coronavirus/stats/covidweekly17.pdf.
The Minneapolis Fed report on nursing homes can be found at https://www.minneapolisfed.org/article/2021/pandemic-renews-fear-of-nursing-home-closures-in-ninth-district.