ROCHESTER, Minn. -- The state of Minnesota reached 700 deaths from COVID-19 on Saturday, May 16, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

The state added 17 deaths Saturday. The deceased included one resident each in Clay, Dakota, Martin and Stearns counties, two residents of Anoka County, five of Hennepin County and six in Ramsey County. Fourteen of the deceased were residents of long-term care. All were in their 70s through their 90s, except for one Ramsey County resident in their 40s.

Though 17 deaths in a single day is a number once viewed as alarming, it's the third day in a row of declining deaths from COVID-19. Previous daily death totals in the 20 to 25 range have created a dispiriting if stable mortality toll which had looked to place the state on a trajectory to reach 1,000 deaths by the end of May.

If the drop in daily deaths continues, that could be good news in light of the recent announcement that much of the state's Stay-at-Home order is to be lifted on Monday, May 18, albeit with restrictions. Death rates have periodically plunged and then returned to previous highs throughout the pandemic, however, for reasons unknown.

In a continuation of the spread of the illness in the community, the near-record 740 new cases recorded Saturday were cast widely across the state. Whereas past weeks have shown spikes of new cases clustered within counties home to intensive testing operations at meat processing plants, the 740 patients confirmed on Saturday are increasingly reflective of the population of each county.

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Meat processing locales including Nobles, Stearns and Kandiyohi counties are no longer home to the largest daily uptick in new cases. Metro area counties like Hennepin and Ramsey counties lead the new case totals on Saturday with 259 and 129 respectively, followed by case totals in the 40s for Anoka and Dakota counties, in the 30s for Stearns County, and in the 20s for third-ring suburban communities.

In outstate Minnesota, there were three dozen counties with new cases in the single digits, suggesting density is not a factor in spread.

Over 8,000 persons were tested on Friday, the second daily testing record in the same week, and an indicator that the state may soon come to better understand what portion of the population has the illness. Previously, testing shortages limited the identification of new cases to those persons who worked in essential health care services or who lived in vulnerable settings.

By limiting testing to a select subset of the population not representative of the state at large, the state's rolling case numbers up until recently were both an undercount and a biased indicator of the location of the illness that favored centers of high testing.

With all persons in the state who now show respiratory symptoms or who have been identified through contact tracing encouraged to get tested, and with testing numbers rising daily, the positive case count in the state is increasingly becoming a meaningful metric in determining the presence of the illness statewide.

If so, on Saturday, it appears to show statewide case prevalence below 10% of those seeking care. The 740 persons testing positive out of 8,612 tests on Friday returned an 8% positive case percentage, a ratio viewed as evidence of success among health officials. State health officials believe the virus is being contained when fewer than 15% of tests conducted are returned positive.

One week ago, for comparison, between 12 to 15% of those tested were positive, according to the state's Dial-Back Dashboard.

The vast majority or over 80% (586) of the state's deaths from COVID-19 have occurred among residents of long-term care settings.

The elevated death rates in long-term care settings is believed to be less a function of the density of those settings — long-term care residents are contracting the illness at only slightly elevated rates as those living elsewhere — as it is a function of the high percentage of persons in those settings with underlying conditions that increase risk of death from COVID-19.

According to the state department of health, over 98% of persons who have died from the virus in the state have an underlying health condition such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or obesity. The mechanism linking those conditions with poor outcomes from the illness, however, remains unknown.

While several of the numbers reported Saturday showed signs of hope, one closely-watched number was of concern; ICU use rose by 25 persons in a single day at the week's end, to 225 persons in serious condition or worse with virus statewide. While most persons admitted to an ICU do get better, the inability to get ICU care for those who need it is considered deadly by state epidemiology modeling.

The previous biggest one-day jump in ICU occurred in early May, a 20 bed spike from 135 to 155.

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Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 hotline: 651-201-3920.

COVID-19 discrimination hotline: 833-454-0148

Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 website: Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) website.