As Minnesota tallies 1st COVID-19 death, experts warn of long road ahead

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Minnesota reached a grim milestone on Saturday.

The first fatal case of COVID-19 took the life of a person in their 80s from Ramsey County.

The Minnesota Department of Health says the number of confirmed cases will increase every day.

“This one strikes closer to home and closer to the heart,” State Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said. “This first Minnesota death underscores once again how important it is for all of us to continue working, doing what we can do individually and collectively to protect each other.”

The Minnesota COVID-19 cases totaled 137 as of Saturday.

But KSTP medical expert Dr. Archelle Georgiou warns the number of confirmed cases likely doesn’t reflect the actual number across the state, and nationwide.

MDH confirms 1st death related to COVID-19

“When the state was asked to estimate how many more people have COVID-19 that we just don’t know about, on the lower end it could be 10 to 11 times as many people as we’ve identified,” Georgiou says. “But they also said on the upper end, it could be 100 times more people.”

The lethal speed of the virus in some patients is something health officials are keeping a close eye on.

The fatal patient showed COVID-19 symptoms on March 13, went to the hospital on March 16 and died three days later.

Authorities are concerned that Minnesotans who aren’t seeing confirmed cases in their communities won’t take the virus seriously.

“If a county has not had a case identified, that does not mean there is not COVID-19 circulating,” said Kris Ehresmann, an MDH infectious disease expert. “We do believe there are more cases in Minnesota, and that the virus is circulating in communities around the state.”

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And what about all the concern about testing?

Georgiou says there’s a wrinkle in the testing process that many people are likely unaware about.

“A negative test actually doesn’t tell you, ‘You don’t have COVID-19,’” she says. “If you are exposed and you are tested during the incubation period before there’s enough virus in your blood to make the test positive, you could have COVID-19 and not even know it.”

Georgiou believes at some point the number of cases could stop rising. But first, she says, there will likely be more bad news.

“I don’t have a crystal ball, but clearly the number of cases we’re going to see is going to continue to increase exponentially,” she said. “In eight weeks we might plateau if we as a society pull together. And at eight weeks we’re going to have to figure out the next phase of this pandemic so we can keep the number of cases constant.”