Sturgis rally is latest concern as ICU cases rise

Coronavirus hospitalizations continued to head the wrong direction in Minnesota as state health officials warned of another potential petri dish for spreading the virus here and across the nation: the upcoming Sturgis motorcycle rally in South Dakota.

The nine-day event is expected to attract more than 250,000 riders and their friends from around the country to the Black Hills staring Friday, which is causing Minnesota health leaders to worry about the disease making its way back here.

“We are concerned with any large gathering, sustained contact of that nature,” Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters Monday, calling the rally “sort of a recipe for something to happen.”

Asked if Minnesota might call for Sturgis riders coming back to the state to voluntarily quarantine, Malcolm said that while cases are expected to bubble up here in late August and early September, officials here haven’t yet discussed a quarantine request.

Riders who do go to Sturgis should limit their social activity when they return and “be very cautious” if their jobs or social 

interactions but them in contact with vulnerable people, added Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director.

Along with the state’s top health officials, Minnesota epidemiologist Michael Osterholm also warned of a potential outbreak stemming from Sturgis. The length of the rally from Friday through Aug. 16, will mean prolonged exposure for many, and the long-distance travel by many riders means they may carry the virus home and touch off other outbreaks, Osterholm, head of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told MPR News Monday.

Sturgis will also feature some high-risk factors, including a surge of possibly hundreds of thousands of people — many of them older — packing into a relatively small town, he added.

“Come mid-August to late August, early September,” Osterholm said, “Sturgis will have one hell of an imprint on this country.”

As Sturgis concerned ratcheted up, the count of those in intensive care rose to a level not seen in five weeks. 

Commissioner Malcolm, again, implored Minnesotans to stay vigilant against the disease, noting that the state’s received some 370 complaints in the past few weeks tied to bars and restaurants over possible violations of the state’s mask-wearing and social distancing requirements, including 24 complaints on Friday.

Stopping the spread is “largely going to be determined by the decisions each of us Minnesotans make,” she said. 

Cases growing across age brackets, up north

Worries remain about the growth of coronavirus cases among younger Minnesotans, including that those infected will inadvertently spread the virus to grandparents and other more vulnerable people.

“Consider all the roles you play” in all daily interactions, Ehresmann cautioned last week. People who might not worry about themselves should worry about infecting vulnerable family members and coworkers, she added.

Minnesotans in their 20s now make up the age group with the most confirmed cases in the pandemic — more than 13,000. The median age of Minnesotans infected has been trending down in recent weeks and is now 36 years old. 

Regionally, newly reported cases have been driven recently by the Twin Cities and its suburbs, but it’s present in all parts of the state, including the north, which had largely avoided the outbreak until recently.

Cases in Beltrami County, home to Bemidji, have more than doubled in the past two weeks, increasing to 193 as of Monday.

Meatpacking operations had been hot spots for big outbreaks in southwest, west-central and central Minnesota earlier in the pandemic, but new cases have slowed considerably in recent weeks.

The case increases the past few week in Minnesota have caught the attention of the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who in a Monday interview with the Journal of the American Medical Association named Minnesota among a handful of states that should reconsider reimposing some restrictions given the trends.

While Minnesota’s daily new case increases in recent weeks have been high, they appear to have stabilized and that “gives us the sense we have a little bit more time to watch our trends,” Malcolm said.

State officials did caution again about waves of scams related to COVID-19 rolling through Minnesota, including a new twist — texts from people posing as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention experts trying to convince others to not wear masks and alleging a dry cough is a sign of “micro mold in your mask,” Ehresmann said.

She also warned again of scammers calling people pretending they are health investigators tracking a COVID-19 outbreak but then asking for Social Security or credit card numbers. A legitimate investigator will never ask for such information, she said.

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