MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota surpassed 13,000 COVID-19 deaths earlier this month with the toll still falling hardest on the elderly, unhealthy and unvaccinated.
The coronavirus remains capable of surprises, though, as it veers to vulnerable locations or demographics or mutates into variants that threaten new populations. The past week's state COVID-19 update revealed a new twist: Women outnumber men in COVID-19 deaths this summer.
Women made up 45% of the 12,649 deaths before June, but 55% of the 323 deaths reported so far this summer.
Historically, women follow public health precautions such as mask-wearing more rigidly and outpaced men in COVID-19 vaccine uptake last year, said Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. Waning immunity and a lack of follow-up with booster shots this year could heighten exposure risks now.
"You can come up with 100 different reasons why women may be more exposed now," he said, "perhaps because they were more diligent about not being exposed earlier (in the pandemic). But it's not clear."
Still, mortality risks have declined for men and women since the winter. That trend is reflected in the 171 days it took for COVID-19 deaths to increase from 12,000 to 13,000 — with Thursday's total reaching 13,014. The preceding millenary jump to 12,000 deaths took only 34 days. At peak severity, COVID-19 caused 1,000 deaths in 14 days in Dec. 2020, before vaccine was available.
State health leaders are hopeful that COVID-19 deaths will continue to decline, and said the elevated share of deaths among women is based on low numbers and perhaps is a statistical oddity. The death rate nationally remains higher among men.
"With vaccine, with therapeutics, with all of the advances in ... prevention and treatment of COVID, I think there is reason to be optimistic," said Kathy Como-Sabetti, manager of the COVID-19 epidemiology section of the Minnesota Department of Health.
Yet risks remain. Jeanine Dunbar resolved to protect her sister, Monica Doxtater, who had a hard life before the pandemic and needed care in assisted living for health problems before she was 60. Doxtater was vaccinated. On outings, they always wore masks and usually chose takeout over restaurant tables. Sometimes, they risked crowds for favorites, like cotton candy and corn dogs at the Midway of the Minnesota State Fair.
Pandemic levels were low in Minnesota in late April when a rapid test instantly showed that Doxtater had COVID-19. Dunbar was crushed. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease from a lifetime of smoking didn't help Doxtater, and her damaged lungs failed to heal after a month in intensive care. She died June 2 at 54.