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MANKATO — The Minnesota Department of Health reported two deaths in the nine-county region Sunday — a Blue Earth County resident in their late 80s and a Faribault County resident in their early 80s — with an additional 80 cases added to the region. 

The regional case total now stands at 16,389, with the virus taking the lives of 145 south-central Minnesotans. 

Blue Earth County led the region with 13 new cases of the virus, followed by 12 in Martin County, 11 in Waseca and Le Sueur counties and 10 in Nicollet County. 

Le Sueur County had nine new cases, followed by seven in Brown County, four in Sibley County and three in Watonwan County. 

Statewide, MDH reported 2,705 new cases, as Minnesota's cumulative total climbed to 397,319 cases and a total death toll of 4,850. 

Sunday's numbers continued a downward trend after the rolling seven-day average of new cases each day fell below 3,000 on Saturday for the first time since Nov. 3. And the average test positivity rate over the past week fell to about 7.2 percent — down from more than 11 percent at the start of the month, and more than 15 percent in mid-November.

Vaccinations began last week — another positive sign, with 947 health care workers vaccinated as of Friday afternoon, added Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director.

Shipments of the newly approved Moderna vaccine started Sunday, bolstering the early doses of the Pfizer vaccine that arrived last week.

Ehresmann cautioned that people who get vaccinated will still need to wear masks and take other measures in the short term until more data pours in on the vaccines’ effects in stopping the spread. The vaccine keeps people from developing COVID-19, she noted, but it's not clear if they can still acquire and spread the virus.

Those encouraging signs, however, came as state health officials reported another 70 COVID-19 deaths in the state, raising December’s record monthly death toll to 1,257.

Averaged over the past week, the number of deaths reported each day is also dropping — that number was 58 on Sunday, down from as high as 67 last week. But that average is still far above figures seen less than two months ago. On Nov. 1, the average daily death toll was 18.

And any recent improvements in COVID-19 stats could be jeopardized by upcoming holiday gatherings.

While acknowledging that some data in recent days showed “positive signs … there is still a lot of virus circulating in our communities,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters Friday. “It’s just really critical that we keep our guard up” going into the year-end holidays.

“We know that we need to see two solid weeks of this kind of decline to make sure that it’s really a valid decline and not just an artifact of numbers being slow to come in,” she added.

Dan Greenwood is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at dgreenwood@mankatofreepress.com

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