MANKATO — Although deaths and hospitalizations show no signs of slowing down, south-central Minnesota improved in two other key COVID-19 metrics this week.

Weekly case totals and test positivity rates, which measure the percentage of tests coming back positive, both declined compared to the prior week. The previous week was marked by jumps in both measures.

New cases in the nine-county region fell by 10% during the week of Oct. 9-15, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Health.

Area counties combined for 932 total. The previous week had 1,035 new cases, a 27% jump.

This week’s case decrease came as the region deals with one of its most deadly months for COVID-19 during the entire pandemic. Fueled by the more contagious delta variant, rising hospitalizations are putting more and more strain on short-staffed hospitals statewide.

Minnesota had 999 people hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Friday, more than at any previous point this year. The concerning trend prompted Gov. Tim Walz to call on the National Guard to help Friday.

Walz announced he’ll send National Guard members to understaffed long-term care facilities. The facilities will then be able to care for more recovering hospital patients, opening up hospital beds for other needs.

He also announced an expanded emergency staffing pool for facilities if outbreaks occur and more rapid testing capabilities statewide. Long-term care facility residents have among the highest, if not the highest, vaccination rates of any group — staff vaccination rates are lower but still above statewide averages.

The announcement came outside North Memorial Hospital in Robbinsdale, where Walz visited along with state health officials. Afterward, he said it’s “frustrating” and “heartbreaking” to know this pandemic could be over if more Minnesotans got vaccinated.

“The idea that we’re losing 25 Minnesotans a day to a preventable disease that is almost 99-plus percent preventable if you get a vaccine is unconscionable,” he said. “We’re better than this.”

The tight capacity at North Memorial, caused in part by preventable COVID-19 hospitalizations, is reportedly making heart attacks, strokes and other traumas harder to treat. Many other hospitals statewide face similar situations, with staff burnout an issue after dealing with wave after wave of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm expressed outrage outside the hospital Friday after staff told her about the abuse they receive from patients and families who refuse to believe COVID-19 caused their illnesses.

It’s gotten to the point, Malcolm said, where nurses and other hospital staff fear going outside in their scrubs.

“I’m just done with not talking about stories like that,” she said. “That is just so incredibly offensive that these people, who are literally putting their lives on the line to save ours, are not being treated today with the same kind of respect that they were treated with when this began.”

She, too, urged Minnesotans to get vaccinated. About 73% of eligible Minnesotans are at least partially vaccinated, compared to about 62% in south-central Minnesota.

The south-central region’s drop in positivity rates was less pronounced than the case drop, going from 9.8% to 9.6%. It’s still well above the 5% threshold used as a measure of concern, but more encouraging than the rise from 8.4% to 9.8% during the previous week.

Steadiness is welcome, said Derek J. Wingert, a local data analyst with the COVID Tracking Project. Last week’s uptick raised concerns about this fall possibly following a similar trajectory as fall 2020, which led to the worst surge during the pandemic.

“Almost any week in which we hold our ground or maybe even show little tiny hints of making progress toward better, those are all hopeful things compared to yet more increases when we’re already at such high rates,” Wingert said.

He noted Faribault and Martin counties had the seventh and eighth biggest decreases in test positivity rates statewide. Faribault County’s dropped from 12.1% to 7.1%, while Martin County dipped from 19.6% to 14.9%.

Blue Earth County came in with the lowest test positivity rate in the region. It declined from 7% to 6.3%.

Nicollet County had quite the opposite week, rising from 5.6% to 10.5%

The highest positivity rate in the region occurred in Sibley County, which also has the lowest percentage of residents vaccinated. Its positivity rate rose from 15.9% to 17.1% — the sixth highest in the state.

Another week of data should provide more clarity on what direction cases and test positivity rates are trending as the region gets deeper into fall.

Follow Brian Arola @BrianArola

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