MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — On Thursday, Minnesota reported it now has 1,192 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Wisconsin’s confirmed cases now stand at 3,875. For the past two weeks, Wisconsin has consistently reported twice the cases as Minnesota.
So, why the difference? Good Question.
“There could be a lot of different factors,” says Dr. Jon Temte, associate dean for public health and community engagement at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine.
Minnesota and Wisconsin have similar-sized populations. Minnesota has 5.6M people while Wisconsin has 5.8M. Both also have similar rates of COVID-19 testing. Minnesota has tested 0.74% of its population, while Wisconsin has tested 0.77% of its population.
The reported COVID-19 deaths in Minnesota (94) have been about half of Wisconsin’s (197) too.
Experts have some theories on why the numbers are different. One is that Wisconsin may have had COVID-19 earlier. Minnesota’s first reported case on March 6th while Wisconsin’s first case was confirmed on February 5th. Wisconsin didn’t have another reported case until March 9th.
“There was only one case that we know of, but we should think of that first case as the canary in the coal mine,” says Dr. Temte. “It indicates what is likely to be happening behind the scenes.”
Another theory is possible differences in how Minnesota and Wisconsin are following their stay-at-home orders. Both states closed schools on the same day – March 18th. Wisconsin’s stay-at-home order started on March 25th, three days before Minnesota’s on March 28th.
“I do think our state is particularly responsive to the request to shelter in place,” says Kris Ehresmann, director of infectious diseases at the Minnesota Department of Health. “I don’t want to say that’s the only thing because there’s certainly many factors that play into this.”
Measuring how well a state is social distancing can be difficult. Some companies have tried to measure it with cell-phone and location tracking data. That data shows both states have similarities when it comes to social distancing.
“Wisconsin has done a very good job with social distancing as well,” says Temte.
Both experts also point to Milwaukee County, which has 50% of all of Wisconsin’s COVID-19 cases. Minnesota’s largest county, Hennepin, has 37% of Minnesota’s cases. Add in Ramsey County, and Minnesota’s two largest counties combined have 46% of state’s cases.
“These densely populated urban settings may be a piece of what’s happening,” says Ehresmann.
Dr. Temte also points out Milwaukee has more African-Americans per capita compared to Minneapolis and St. Paul. That’s population that been shown to be at higher risk for complications of COVID-19.
“I think this has a large effect if cases end up in areas such as Milwaukee, which we all know has this long history of disparity,” says Temte.
He says that history is linked to lower access to healthcare for African-Americans.
When asked whether Wisconsin’s proximity to Chicago might have an impact on the higher rate of cases, Dr. Temte said he didn’t think so. He said that corner of southeast Wisconsin is already dense on its own.
Ultimately, like with most things COVID-19, many of these answers to this question not fully understood.
“We’re really speculating,” says Ehresmann.