Opinion editor’s note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
The emergence of highly transmissible COVID-19 variants makes it increasingly challenging to answer this question: When will the pandemic be over?
But more than two years after the virus made landfall in the United States, there’s enough data to assess how well Minnesota has done thus far in managing a historic public health crisis. A walk-through of key metrics is timely and necessary. It also sets a solid foundation for the debate sure to come in the upcoming fall election over the state’s COVID track record.
So how did Minnesota do?
The response requires evaluating a broad, changing mix of indicators. Nevertheless, the starting point should be how well the state protected people from dying. And the critical measurement is the COVID death rate.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has tracked this since Jan. 21, 2020, and provides comparison data with other states. Minnesota’s rate over this period is 228 deaths per 100,000 population. That’s well below the overall U.S. rate of 300 deaths. Just 10 states bested Minnesota, with Vermont and Hawaii recording the lowest rates of 99 and 101, respectively.
Regionally, Minnesota outperformed all bordering states. Wisconsin posted 249 deaths per 100,000, with North Dakota registering 298. Iowa and South Dakota both exceeded the national average, with 303 and 329 deaths, respectively.
Other key health metrics also should be highlighted:
- Cases: Minnesota’s COVID case rate is in the middle of the 50-state pack, with 26,428 per 100,000 population. Rhode Island, Alaska and North Dakota had the highest rates. Maryland, Oregon and Hawaii had the lowest. Regionally, Iowa had the lowest case rate, with Minnesota having the second-lowest among the four bordering states.
- Vaccinations: Minnesota’s percentage of those ages 5 and over who are fully vaccinated ranks 16th nationally. (The shots are not yet available for young children). The state’s 73.9% leads the region. Minnesota also ranks second among all states for the percentage of the fully vaccinated population ages 12 and over to have gotten a first booster shot. And Minnesota currently ranks fourth nationally for the percentage of those over 65 who have had a second booster dose.
- Testing: The state ranks seventh nationally. Minnesota also far outpaced its regional neighbors, likely reflecting this state’s widely available no-cost testing options.
While those hewing to Minnesota exceptionalism are likely disappointed the state did not top all measures, its overall COVID health metrics are solid nationally and impressive regionally.
Still, the economic toll of pandemic mitigation efforts must be considered. Business owners heroically navigated the pandemic’s uncertainties as well as masking, capacity limits and other mitigations. Frustrations often outpaced federal and state aid’s ability to soften the impact.
But two crucial high-altitude data points suggest that Minnesota has kept pace economically with neighbors that eased back on mitigation sooner.
- Unemployment rate: Minnesota’s 2.2% in April was the lowest for the state since tracking began in 1976 and even healthier than the 3.6% U.S. rate. South Dakota, which had far looser COVID restrictions, was at 2.3%, with Iowa at 3%, and North Dakota and Wisconsin at 2.8%.
- GDP growth: All states saw increases in real gross domestic product (GDP) growth from 2020 to 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Minnesota’s 5.7% increase ranked 18th nationally and surpassed that of Wisconsin and the Dakotas. Iowa led regionally with 6.4%.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board isn’t the first to evaluate Minnesota’s handling of the pandemic. Politico took a run at it late last year, scoring the states on health, economic, educational and social responses. Minnesota was a strong performer in that analysis as well — with its average score ranking fifth nationally — and the report’s authors cited its balanced approach.
COVID management will be a high-profile issue during the fall election. Those attacking the state’s record — or defending it — should argue their case with evidence, not just rhetoric.
Editorial Board members are David Banks, Jill Burcum, Scott Gillespie, Denise Johnson, Patricia Lopez, John Rash and D.J. Tice. Star Tribune Opinion staff members Maggie Kelly and Elena Neuzil also contribute, and Star Tribune Publisher and CEO Michael J. Klingensmith serves as an adviser to the board.