MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The latest data show COVID-19 cases linked to schools have sharply declined since mid-September, but experts warn that it’s too early to determine if the state has passed the peak of the latest surge.

Confirmed infections among staff and teachers peaked at nearly 3,000 the week of Sept. 19, according to the latest weekly report from the Minnesota Department of Health. Last week, there were fewer than 1,000 cases reported.

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Dr. Beth Thielen, a pediatric infectious disease doctor at M Health Fairview and the University of Minnesota Medical School, said while that’s a promising sign, she is awaiting more data in the coming weeks to determine its significance.

“I think it’s still really early to judge,” Thielen said. “Even when we do start to see that leveling off, I think a lot of us in the health care space are worried that it may still sort of take a long time before we get back to the nice levels that we enjoyed, the levels over the summer.”

In the last two weeks, of 828 school buildings reporting cases, 99 of them with outbreaks of five or more infections, according to state data.

(credit: MDH)

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The health department Thursday said at least one student and five staff members have died from COVID-19 since the school year started.

“There is no excuse for any district leader to ignore the guidelines for masking, social distancing, quarantining and vaccinations set out by state and federal public health authorities,” said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota following the report.

The state is offering more rapid tests in response to an uptick in infections in recent weeks. Hospital capacity is also still a concern, pushing Gov. Tim Walz to call the National Guard to help alleviate staffing woes at long-term care facilities to help with transitional care.

Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm on Thursday noted that cases overall are declining slightly, though this surge is unlike previous ones. This latest increase in new infections happened more gradually, making it harder to predict.

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“It’s really up to us whether this trend that we hope we’re starting to see of a plateau continues or not,” Malcolm said. “The speed of how quickly we get to the end of this thing is still very much a question.”

Caroline Cummings