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Medical student Kimberly Olivares, left, takes a sample from a patient at a free COVID-19 testing site provided by United Memorial Medical Center, Sunday, June 28, 2020, at the Mexican Consulate, in Houston. Confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Texas continue to surge. On Friday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott shut down bars again and scaled back restaurant dining as cases climbed to record levels after the state embarked on one of America's fastest reopenings. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Here's how COVID-19 affected Minnesota and Wisconsin differently. The reasons why are still unclear.

Their coronavirus outbreaks began at about the same time, but COVID-19 has now killed almost twice as many Minnesotans than their neighbors to the east; and Wisconsin has 25% fewer infections.

It’s unclear why the pandemic has affected the two Upper Midwestern states so differently or if those variances will hold up long term. But it has driven criticism of Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and his decision to keep restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus in place longer than many other states.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers had the state’s Supreme Court strike down most of his restrictions May 13. The court’s ruling called Evers’ stay-home order “unlawful, invalid, and unenforceable” and left the Democratic governor with few options to restrict gatherings, travel and commerce without a consensus of the Republican-led state Legislature.

Absent a bipartisan agreement on restrictions, Wisconsin largely reopened weeks ahead of Minnesota.

So far, the state has not seen an immediate spike in coronavirus cases tied to its quick reopening, although infections were on the rise there last week.

Minnesota Republicans also tried to get Walz to ease restrictions more quickly, but the GOP-led Senate’s effort earlier this month to end his peacetime emergency powers died in the DFL-controlled House. Lawmakers may get another chance to weigh in if Walz decides to extend his powers again in July.

Minnesota officials’ decision to slowly ease restrictions in place meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus may still be vindicated. Several southern states like Texas and Florida are experiencing spikes in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations after quickly reopening last month.

Minnesota health officials have largely discounted comparisons between the two states despite similarities in population size and when their first infections and COVID-19 deaths were recorded.

There also are clear differences between the states.

While Wisconsin is more densely populated overall, Minnesota has a significantly larger metropolitan area. Some of Minnesota’s largest outbreaks per capita are in rural counties with meat processing facilities while Wisconsin’s cases have largely been in urban areas.

“We are at different points in the outbreak,” said Kris Ehresmann, director of the Minnesota Department of Health infectious disease division. She noted that Minnesota fared better early on in the pandemic, but then surpassed Wisconsin.

“The comparisons, I don’t know they are completely helpful. We’ve talked with their health department. We are not doing things particularly different from them,” she said.

The differences in COVID-19 fatalities — more than 1,400 in Minnesota and under 800 in Wisconsin — are stark and so far unexplained.

“I don’t have a good answer for the differences in death rates, at this point,” Ehresmann said.

Size of the outbreaks

Minnesota and Wisconsin both confirmed their first coronavirus infection in early March. At the time, testing was still being done at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and was very limited.

In the three-and-a-half months that followed, health officials in the two states would record hundreds of new infections each day. Minnesota now has more than 35,033 virus cases while Wisconsin has more than 26,747.

The Gopher State set a daily record of 840 new cases May 23 while the Badger State had a daily high of 599 cases four days later on May 27.

Both states have screened more than half a million patients’ samples for the coronavirus, but Minnesota has completed about 32,000 more tests than Wisconsin. Minnesota has a cumulative test positivity rate of 6.3% and Wisconsin’s rate is just under 5%.

U.S. Census data show Wisconsin has 5.85 million residents to Minnesota’s 5.7 million. Wisconsin’s population is more dense with 106 people per square mile to Minnesota’s 68 residents per square mile.

However, the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, with about 3.6 million people, is more than twice the size of the Milwaukee-Waukesha area and its 1.6 million residents.

Minnesota has nine counties with a per capita infection rate of 10 or more cases per 1,000 residents. All of them are rural counties with meat processing facilities and account for nearly 7,000 of Minnesota’s coronavirus cases.

Hennepin County has about 9 cases per 1,000 residents and Ramsey County has 8 cases per 1,000 people.

In contrast, Wisconsin has three counties with infection rates above 10 cases per 1,000 — Milwaukee, Racine and Brown counties — which are among the state’s largest.

Big difference in death rates

By far the most evident distinction between Minnesota and Wisconsin’s coronavirus outbreaks is the number of people who have died of COVID-19. Minnesota’s 1,411 deaths as of Friday is nearly double Wisconsin’s 766 fatalities.

The demographics of those who’ve died are clearly similar. COVID-19 has taken the biggest toll on older residents and people with underlying health conditions.

While Minnesota and Wisconsin have roughly the same number of people in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, Minnesota has experienced significantly more fatalities in those settings than Wisconsin.

As of Friday, Minnesota recorded 1,112 deaths in congregate care facilities while Wisconsin had 375. Those figures include nursing homes, assisted living and other types of group homes, but the states do classify facilities differently.

Wisconsin has 200 deaths where the patient’s housing situation is classified as unknown.

The states appear to be classifying official COVID-19 deaths in roughly the same way. Both states allow doctors and pathologists to list multiple factors that contribute to a person’s death.

Many of those who’ve died in both states also suffered from other serious underlying health conditions, health officials said.

Ehresmann noted anyone with a confirmed diagnostic coronavirus test who dies is included in Minnesota’s death tally. Wisconsin health officials use the same criteria, although officials note patients who had the virus but were not sick and died of an unrelated issue, such as an overdose or car wreck, would not be included in the official tally.

Economic consequences

Restrictions on businesses, travel and gatherings to slow the spread of the coronavirus led to an unprecedented wave of unemployment claims in both states.

Both states have a labor force of similar size, but Minnesota has recorded more than 794,000 unemployment claims to Wisconsin’s 666,000 since March. The biggest difference was early in the pandemic when more Minnesotans filed for unemployment than Wisconsinites.

It’s unclear why Minnesota had such a larger spike, since both states had similar restrictions at the onset of response to the outbreak.

Both states are following a similar trend in recent weeks when it comes to unemployment claims. However, last week, 23,773 Wisconsin residents filed for unemployment compared with 18,465 in Minnesota. And Wisconsin’s unemployment rate in May was 12%, while in Minnesota it was 9.9%.

Time will tell

The coronavirus pandemic has been tough to predict as the outbreak has raged across the nation and globe. One thing health officials agree on is that we are still in the early stages of the coronavirus fight.

The coming weeks and months should give state officials a more clear picture of how well restrictions on businesses, gatherings and travel worked to slow the spread of coronavirus infections.

As of Friday, weeks into reopening, both states were experiencing upticks in coronavirus cases.

“The next couple of weeks could be pretty telling nationwide,” said Jan Malcolm, Minnesota health commissioner. “We are going to be interested to see what happens.”

Mississippi close to removing rebel emblem from its flag

JACKSON, Miss. — Mississippi legislators were working Sunday to change the state flag by removing a Confederate battle emblem that’s broadly condemned as racist.

The House passed a bill 91-23 with broad bipartisan support, sending it to the Senate for more debate.

The flag’s supporters resisted efforts to change it for decades, but rapid developments in recent weeks have changed dynamics on this issue in the tradition-bound state.

As protests against racial injustice recently spread across the U.S., including Mississippi, leaders from business, religion, education and sports have spoken forcefully against the state flag. They have urged legislators to ditch the 126-year-old banner for one that better reflects the diversity of a state with a 38% Black population.

The bill being considered Sunday will remove the current flag from state law in the next few days — as soon as the bill is signed by Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, who has said he will do so. A commission would design a new flag that cannot include the Confederate symbol and that must have the words “In God We Trust.”

The state House and Senate met Saturday and took a big step: By two-thirds margins, they suspended legislative deadlines so a flag bill could be filed. Spectators cheered as each chamber voted, and legislators seeking the change embraced each other.

“There are economic issues. There are issues involving football or whatever,” Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann said Saturday. “But this vote came from the heart. That makes it so much more important.”

Democratic Sen. David Jordan, who is African American, has pushed for decades to change the flag. He smiled broadly after Saturday’s vote and said, “This is such a metamorphosis.”

Mississippi has the last state flag with the Confederate battle emblem — a red field topped by a blue X with 13 white stars. The flag has been divisive for generations. All of the state’s public universities have stopped flying it, as have a growing number of cities and counties.

White supremacists in the Mississippi Legislature set the state flag design in 1894 during backlash to the political power that African Americans gained after the Civil War.

In 2000, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that the flag lacked official status. State laws were updated in 1906, and portions dealing with the flag were not carried forward. Legislators set a flag election in 2001, and voters kept the rebel-themed design.

Former state Rep. Steve Holland was at the Capitol on Sunday urging legislators to change the flag. As a Democratic House member in 2000, Holland served on a commission that held public hearings about the flag. He said Sunday that he and other commissioners received death threats back then.

Holland, who is white, said he voted in the 2001 election to keep the flag but he now sees the rebel symbol as harmful.

“People have changed,” Holland said. “The country’s changed. The world has changed.”

Former Ole Miss basketball player Blake Hinson told his hometown Daytona Beach (Florida) News-Journal that the Mississippi flag played a part in his decision to transfer to Iowa State.

“It was time to go and leave Ole Miss,” Hinson said. “I’m proud not to represent that flag anymore and to not be associated with anything representing the Confederacy.”

Reeves and many other politicians have said people should get to vote on a flag design in another statewide election. The new design — without the Confederate symbol — will be put on the ballot Nov. 3, but it will be the only choice. If a majority voting that day accept the new design, it will become the state flag. If a majority reject it, the commission will design a new flag using the same guidelines.

People wanting to keep the Confederate-themed flag could gather more than 100,000 signatures to put that design up for statewide election. It’s too late to get it on the ballot this November, though, because of timelines set in state law.

Mankato bar owner defends efforts to avoid spread of COVID-19

The owner of a Mankato bar identified by state health officials as contributing to a recent surge in COVID-19 cases in young adults defended his establishment Saturday, saying he has employed aggressive measures to keep patrons from contracting the virus.

Steve Wegman, owner of The 507, said he’s invested in masks, gloves and cleaning supplies and taken many other steps to protect the health and safety of both customers and employees since Minnesota bars and restaurants reopened at limited capacity this month.

The 507 was one of four Minnesota bars — two in Mankato and two in Minneapolis — where clusters of coronavirus infections in young adults have recently turned up, the Minnesota Department of Health said Friday. The others were Rounders Sports Bar & Grill in Mankato and Cowboy Jack’s and the Kollege Klub, both in Minneapolis. Representatives at those businesses could not be reached for comment Saturday.

Wegman said Saturday that he was frustrated that his bar was identified as a COVID-19 hot spot, particularly after it followed guidelines issued by the state. He added that he felt establishments like his were in “a no-win situation” with the state Health Department.

“It’s been extremely vague on how we’re supposed to proceed,” Wegman said. “I personally don’t know what more we can do other than close to stop the spread.”

Kris Ehresmann, director of infectious disease at the Health Department, said the state identified the establishments so that people who frequented the bars would know to get tested for COVID-19 if they develop symptoms.

Public health officials also contacted the bars to share information on best practices, she said.

The Health Department said more than 30 cases had been identified among people who went to Cowboy Jack’s in Minneapolis and the Kollege Klub in Dinkytown between June 14 and June 21.

And roughly 100 people who visited The 507 and/or Rounders Sports Bar & Grill the weekend of June 12-14 were infected. On Saturday, Ehresmann said there were 39 cases associated with The 507, including 32 cases where infected people also visited Rounders.

“Thirty-nine cases who identified being there is concerning and reason for notification,” she said via e-mail. “They had one case who worked while infectious and symptomatic.”

The Health Department reported Saturday that six more people have died of COVID-19, pushing the pandemic’s statewide toll to 1,417. Residents of long-term care and assisted-living facilities accounted for four of the newly announced deaths.

After peaking in late May, daily tallies for hospitalized patients in Minnesota have trended down. That continued Saturday with the latest numbers showing the number of hospitalized patients dropping from 335 on Friday to 300. The numbers also showed 155 patients required intensive care, compared with 157 a day earlier.

The state on Saturday saw a net increase of 417 newly confirmed cases on a volume of 11,521 completed tests — numbers that continued recent trends of fewer new cases being reported even as the state expands its testing capacity. The number of confirmed cases statewide now exceeds 35,000.

To prevent spread, The 507 is regularly taking temperatures of both employees and customers, in addition to regularly sanitizing tables and chairs, said Isaiah Pitchford, the bar’s general manager. It is only running a patio bar, where most people sit at tables, Pitchford said, so staff can make sure people keep their distance.

When the bar learned about an employee who tested positive, Pitchford said he decided to close for several days for cleaning and to ensure other workers got tested. “We know how serious the COVID-19 virus is and we want to keep everybody safe,” he said.

Pat Bernick, who stopped at the Kollege Klub on Saturday afternoon with his roommates, said they “feel bad” the bar is getting some negative publicity. Will Engstrom, one of the roommates, said that bar staff have worked hard “to keep us distant [and] adhere to the restrictions.”

Kollege Klub “has been doing a pretty good job,” including limiting the number of customers allowed on the patio at once, said Rex Riley, another customer. “They make sure the numbers stay down and everybody’s being smart.”

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness caused by a new coronavirus that surfaced late last year. Since the first case was reported in Minnesota in early March, 3,966 people have been hospitalized.

People at greatest risk include those 65 and older, residents of long-term care and those with underlying medical conditions including serious heart problems, severe obesity and diabetes.

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Two new COVID-19 cases confirmed in Winona County; total raises to 112

Two new COVID-19 cases in Winona County were confirmed Sunday by the Minnesota Department of Health, raising the total to 112..

No information about these new cases was released, because of privacy protection for the patients.

No new COVID-19 deaths were reported in the county, leaving the total at 15.

In Minnesota, 35,549 of 585,417 COVID-19 tests have come back positive, with 30,809 of these patients no longer needing to be in isolation and 1,425 having died.

Statewide, 4,010 people have required hospitalization because of COVID-19, with 288 remaining in hospitals Tuesday.

For daily Minnesota COVID-19 situation updates, visit the Minnesota Department of Health’s website.

Databank: Maps and more you can use to track COVID-19 spread