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Geothermal energy is poised for a big breakout

Mish Boyka

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Geothermal power is the perpetual also-ran of renewable energy, chugging along in the background for decades, never quite breaking out of its little niche, forever causing energy experts to say, “Oh, yeah, geothermal … what’s up with that?”

Well, after approximately 15 years of reporting on energy, I finally took the time to do a deep dive into geothermal and I am here to report: This is a great time to start paying attention!

After many years of failure to launch, new companies and technologies have brought geothermal out of its doldrums, to the point that it may finally be ready to scale up and become a major player in clean energy. In fact, if its more enthusiastic backers are correct, geothermal may hold the key to making 100 percent clean electricity available to everyone in the world. And as a bonus, it’s an opportunity for the struggling oil and gas industry to put its capital and skills to work on something that won’t degrade the planet.

Vik Rao, former chief technology officer at Halliburton, the oil field service giant, recently told the geothermal blog Heat Beat, “geothermal is no longer a niche play. It’s scalable, potentially in a highly material way. Scalability gets the attention of the [oil services] industry.”

In this post, I’m going to cover technologies meant to mine heat deep from the Earth, which can then be used as direct heat for communities, to generate electricity, or to do both through “cogeneration” of heat and electricity. (Note that ground-source heat pumps, which take advantage of steady shallow-earth temperatures to heat buildings or groups of buildings, are sometimes included among geothermal technologies, but I’m going to leave them aside for a separate post.)

Before we get to the technologies, though, let’s take a quick look at geothermal energy itself.

 

Yellowstone National Park Opens Montana Entrances After Pandemic Shutdown

 

 

Visitors photographing everyone’s favorite geothermal feature: Old Faithful, in Yellowstone Park.
William Campbell/Getty Images

 

What is geothermal energy?

Fun fact: The molten core of the Earth, about 4,000 miles down, is roughly as hot as the surface of the sun, over 6,000°C, or 10,800°F. That’s why the geothermal energy industry is fond of calling it “the sun beneath our feet.” The heat is continuously replenished by the decay of naturally occurring radioactive elements, at a flow rate of roughly 30 terawatts, almost double all human energy consumption. That process is expected to continue for billions of years.

The ARPA-E project AltaRock Energy estimates that “just 0.1% of the heat content of Earth could supply humanity’s total energy needs for 2 million years.” There’s enough energy in the Earth’s crust, just a few miles down, to power all of human civilization for generations to come. All we have to do is tap into it.

Tapping into it, though, turns out to be pretty tricky.

The easiest way to do so is to make direct use of the heat where it breaks the surface, in hot springs, geysers, and fumaroles (steam vents near volcanic activity). The warm water can be used for bathing or washing, and the heat for cooking. Using geothermal energy this way has been around since the earliest humans, going back at least to the Middle Paleolithic.

Slightly more sophisticated is tapping into naturally occurring reservoirs of geothermal heat close to the surface to heat buildings. In the 1890s, the city of Boise, Idaho, tapped one to create the US’s first district heating system, whereby one central source of heat feeds into multiple commercial and residential buildings. (Boise’s downtown still uses it.)

After that came digging deeper and using the heat to generate electricity. The first commercial geothermal power plant in the US was opened in 1960 in the Geysers, California; there are more than 60 operating in the US today.

The technology for accessing deep geothermal is developing at a dizzying pace these days. Let’s take a look at its basic forms, from established to experimental.

 

varieties of geothermal energy

 

 

DOE

 

Four basic types of geothermal energy technology

Once it reaches the surface, geothermal energy is used for a wide variety of purposes, mainly because there are many different ways to use heat. Depending on how hot the resource is, it can be exploited by numerous industries. Virtually any level of heat can be used directly, to run fisheries or greenhouses, to dry cement, or (the really hot stuff) to make hydrogen.

To make electricity, higher minimum heats are required. The older generation of geothermal power plants used steam directly from the ground, or “flashed” fluids from the ground into steam, to run a turbine. (The water and air pollution that has been associated with first-generation geothermal projects was all from flash plants, which boil water from underground and end up off-gassing everything in it, including some nasty pollutants.)

Flash plants require heat of at least 200°C. The newer, “binary” plants run fluids from the ground past a heat exchanger and then use the heat to flash steam (meaning the underground water isn’t boiled directly and there’s no air or water pollution). Binary plants can generate electricity from around 100°C up.

 

 

Getting the heat to the surface is the trick. For that purpose, it’s useful to think of geothermal energy technology as falling into four broad categories.

1) Conventional hydrothermal resources

In a few select areas (think parts of Iceland, or California), water or steam heated by Earth’s core rises through relatively permeable rock, full of fissures and fractures, only to become trapped under an impermeable caprock. These giant reservoirs of pressurized hot water often reveal themselves on the surface through fumaroles or hot springs.

 

hydrothermal resources

 

 

DOE

 

Once a reservoir is located, exploratory wells are drilled until a suitable location can be located for a production well. The hot water that rises through that well can range from just over ambient temperature to 370°C, depending on the field (to get into temperatures hotter than that requires going deeper; more on that later). Once heat is extracted from them, the fluids are cooled and returned to the field via an injection well, to maintain pressure.

Almost all conventional geothermal projects, most of what’s now running, make use of high-quality hydrothermal resources.

One problem with hydrothermal reservoirs is that their visible manifestations — hot springs and fumaroles — remain the only reliable way to identify them; exploration and characterization of new fields is expensive and uncertain. (This is one area of furious technological development.)

Another problem is that they are extremely geographically concentrated. In the US, geothermal electricity is mostly located in California, Nevada, Hawaii, and Alaska, where tectonic plates are grinding beneath the surface.

 

geothermal in the us today

 

 

NREL

 

Where hydrothermal resources are readily available, the advantages of geothermal energy are well-understood. The global geothermal electricity fleet has an average capacity factor — time spent running relative to maximum capacity — of 74.5 percent, and newer plants often exceed 90 percent. Geothermal can provide always-on, baseload power; it is the only renewable resource to do so.

As of the end of 2019, global installed geothermal electric capacity, dispersed across 29 countries, reached 15.4 GW, with the US in the lead.

 

geothermal global

 

 

Think Geoenergy

 

The final problem is that most of the big, well-explored, well-characterized fields have been tapped out, at least with conventional technology. Geothermal that relies on high-quality hydrothermal resources remains a niche solution, difficult to standardize and scale. That’s why it has lagged behind other renewable resources for so long.

Which brings us to …

2) Enhanced geothermal systems (EGS)

Conventional geothermal systems are limited to specialized areas where heat, water, and porosity come together just so. But those areas are limited.

There’s plenty of heat stored down in all that normal, solid, nonporous rock, though. What if geothermal developers could make their own reservoirs? What if they could drill down into solid rock, inject water at high pressure through one well, fracture the rock to let the water pass through, and then collect the heated water through another well?

That, in a nutshell, is EGS: geothermal that makes its own reservoir.

 

EGS

 

 

DOE

 

To be clear, the line between a conventional hydrothermal resource and a resource that requires EGS is not sharp. There are many gradations and variations between wet/porous and dry/solid.

“What you really have is a supply curve, where the variables are temperature, depth, well permeability, and reservoir permeability,” says Tim Latimer, founder and CEO of the EGS company Fervo Energy. “Everything between the two extremes exists.”

To put it simply, as the resource gets deeper and the rock becomes hotter and less porous, the engineering difficulty of accessing it rises.

The basic idea has always been that EGS would start off within existing hydrothermal reservoirs, where fields are relatively well-characterized. Then, as it learned, honed its technology, and brought down costs, it would branch out from “in field” into “near field” resources — solid rock adjacent to reservoirs, at similar depth. Eventually it would be able to venture farther out into new fields and deeper into hotter rock. In theory, EGS could eventually be located almost anywhere in the world.

That’s been the game plan for a decade now, and it’s still the game plan, as laid out in the magisterial 2019 GeoVision study on geothermal from the Department of Energy. The EGS industry has had trouble, though, getting all the ducks in a row. There was a burst of activity around 2010, based on Obama stimulus money and binary power plants. But by the time the drilling technology from the shale gas revolution had begun making its way over to geothermal, around 2015, capital had dried up and attention had turned away.

It’s only been in 2020, Latimer says, that everything has finally lined up: strong public and investor interest, real market demand (thanks to ambitious state renewable energy goals), and a flood of new technologies borrowed from the oil and gas industry. EGS startups like Fervo are growing quickly and bigger, established companies are running profitable EGS projects today.

The engineering challenges remain daunting, especially as the targets get deeper and drier. There are PR challenges as well. Injecting fluids into the ground in order to fracture rock is known as “fracking” in the oil and gas business, and … it’s got a bit of a reputation. In fact, there are whole US states and countries where it is banned.

The industry is keen to distance itself from gas fracking. The fluids used are benign, so there’s little danger of water pollution. Worries about induced seismic activity are somewhat overblown; in oil and gas drilling, it is high-volume water disposal wells associated with seismicity, and EGS doesn’t have those. The fractures are smaller, more controlled, and under far less pressure than in oil and gas fracking. As long as drillers avoid fault lines, which they’re getting better at doing, the risk is modest, especially relative to the benefits. (Ironically, geothermal projects have to meet more seismic safety conditions than comparatively far more dangerous oil and gas projects.)

And, of course, unlike with gas fracking, there’s no combustion of fossil fuels at the end of the line. EGS is benefiting from technology advances in fracking, but it is not doing the thing environmentalists hate. Explaining that to the public and policymakers remains a thorny challenge, though, to say the least.

Still, if the engineering and marketing challenges can be overcome, the prize is almost unthinkably large. Assuming an average well depth of 4.3 miles and a minimum rock temperature of 150°C, the GeoVision study estimates a total US geothermal resource of at least 5,157 gigawatts of electric capacity — around five times the nation’s current installed capacity.

Alternatively, using EGS for direct heat could provide the US with 15 million terawatt-hours-thermal (TWhth). “Compared to a total US annual energy consumption of 1,754 TWhth for residential and commercial space heating,” DOE writes, “this EGS-based resource is theoretically sufficient to heat every US home and commercial building for at least 8,500 years.”

There’s enough heat down there to sustain civilization for generations.

 

Sauerlach Geothermal Plant, a binary geothermal power plant in Munich, Germany.

 

 

Sauerlach Geothermal Plant, a binary geothermal power plant in Munich, Germany.
Tim Latimer

 

And there’s even more heat deeper down, 6 miles and further.

3) Super-hot-rock geothermal

At the far horizon of EGS is “super hot rock” geothermal, which seeks to tap into extremely deep, extremely hot rock.

At extremely high heat, the performance of geothermal doesn’t just rise, it takes a leap. When water exceeds 373°C and 220 bars of pressure, it becomes “supercritical,” a new phase that is neither liquid nor gas. The science of supercritical water is funky (it’s like … low-density water?) and I’m not going to attempt to explain it, but it is regularly used by industry, including in some advanced coal plants, so its properties are fairly well understood.

For our purposes, there are two important things about supercritical water. First, its enthalpy is much higher than water or steam, meaning it holds anywhere from 4 to 10 times more energy per unit mass. And second, it is so hot that it almost doubles the Carnot efficiency of its conversion to electricity.

“Not only do you get more energy out of your well,” says Eric Ingersoll, a clean energy analyst at the consultancy LucidCatalyst, “you get more electricity out of that energy.”

That means an individual geothermal project at 400°C would have about 50MW capacity, compared to the roughly 5MW capacity of an EGS project at 200°C — twice the temperature, 10 times the power.

You could get more power out of three wells on a 400°C project than you can out of 42 EGS wells at 200°C, using less fluid and a fraction of the physical footprint.

 

super hot rock geothermal

 

 

ARPA-E

 

Experience to date shows that the hotter geothermal gets, the more competitive its power price, to the point that super-hot EGS could be the cheapest baseload energy available.

 

 

The engineering challenges are hairy. (Oil and gas engineers, the current masters of drilling, did not design for high heat; they didn’t need to.) New casings and cements need to be developed; water chemistry at high heat needs to be better understood; materials that resist corrosion and high heat need to be perfected; drilling techniques need to continue improving. There are even new, “non-contact drilling” methods being developed, including AltaRock’s, which uses frickin’ lasers (“millimeter waves,” technically).

No well is currently producing electricity from supercritical water, but several past wells (in Hawaii and California’s Salton Sea, e.g.) have encountered supercritical water and there are exploratory projects in Japan, Italy, Mexico, and several other counties to learn more. (Here’s a recent review of super-hot-rock history and research.)

It wouldn’t take much help to get this technology developing more quickly. “There’s an opportunity to spend a relatively small amount of money to galvanize the industry,” says Ingersoll. The US currently lacks a robust clean energy innovation system, but there’s a super-hot-rock research program at ARPA-E (AltaRock), a spinoff group called the Hotrock Energy Research Organization (HERO), and several demonstration projects pushing things along. More is needed. The reward — cheap baseload power, available almost anywhere — is too big to pass up.

A fourth category of technologies has emerged recently, which holds out similar promise that geothermal power could someday be accessible anywhere.

4) Advanced geothermal systems (AGS)

AGS refers to a new generation of “closed loop” systems, in which no fluids are introduced to or extracted from the Earth; there’s no fracking. Instead, fluids circulate underground in sealed pipes and boreholes, picking up heat by conduction and carrying it to the surface, where it can be used for a tunable mix of heat and electricity.

Closed-loop geothermal systems have been around for decades, but a few startups have recently amped them up with technologies from the oil and gas industry. One such company, started by investors with experience in oil and gas, is the Alberta-based Eavor.

In Eavor’s planned system, called an “Eavor-Loop,” two vertical wells around 1.5 miles apart will be connected by a horizontally arrayed series of lateral wells, in a kind of radiator design, to maximize surface area and soak up as much heat as possible. (Precise lateral drilling is borrowed from the shale revolution, and from the oil sands.)

 

eavor-loop

 

 

Water flows A>E.
Eavor

 

Because the loop is closed, cool water on one side sinks while hot water on the other side rises, creating a “thermosiphon” effect that circulates the water naturally, with no need for a pump. Without the parasitic load of a pump, Eavor can make profitable use of relatively low heat, around 150°C, available almost anywhere about a mile and a half down.

So far there’s an “Eavor-Lite” demonstration project built in Alberta, meant to prove out the basic concepts and technologies. It has shown that the lateral wells can be precisely targeted, the thermosiphon effect works, and the plant’s costs and output can be reliably predicted in advance. The company has three or four commercial plants in various stages of planning; likely up next is a plant scheduled to break ground in 2021 in Geretsried, Germany. (It will take advantage of Germany’s feed-in tariffs.) In France and the Netherlands Eavor will provide heat; in Japan, electricity; in Germany, a mix.

When I spoke with Eavor president John Redfern and head of business development Paul Cairns, they told me about a recent change in their design that will reduce the physical footprint and enable even more precise drilling. Instead of the two vertical wells being located at a distance, they will be right next to each other. Lateral wells branch out from them, staying parallel until they meet at the end. Like so:

With the wells so close to one another, they can use “magnetic ranging” (with a transmitter in one well and a receiver in another) to remain at a fixed distance from one another. Meeting at the end is easier than meeting in the middle.

As for land use, after the initial drilling, the only part that technically needs to be aboveground is the air cooler that cools the water before it descends. Power lines, even the electric generator itself, could be underground. And if there’s a water cooler rather than an air cooler, that too could be underground. “Theoretically,” Cairns says, “you could have zero surface footprint.”

Since all Eavor needs to work is hot rock, which is pretty reliably located beneath almost any site in the world, it avoids the need for expensive exploration and modeling. “We’re not smarter,” Redfern says, “we just have much simpler theoretical problems.”

 

eavor suitability

 

 

Eavor

 

An Eavor-Loop can act as baseload (always-on) power, but it can also act as flexible, dispatchable power — it can ramp up and down almost instantaneously to complement variable wind and solar energy. It does this by restricting or cutting off the flow of fluid. As the fluid remains trapped underground longer, it absorbs more and more heat.

So, unlike with solar, ramping the plant down does not waste (curtail) the energy. The fluid simply charges up, like a battery, so that when it’s turned back on it produces at above nameplate capacity. This allows the plant to “shape” its output to match almost any demand curve.

Jamie Beard, who runs the Geothermal Entrepreneurship Organization at the University of Texas Austin, is bullish on AGS (she worries about the PR problems facing EGS), but she warns that Eavor — like other promising geothermal startups Fervo Energy, GreenFire Energy, and Sage Geosystems — does not yet have everything figured out, despite its confident claims. “I want them to have it in the bag,” she says, “but they don’t yet have it in the bag.”

Directional drilling in high temperatures, above 150°C or so, remains difficult, with equipment prone to melting (again, oil and gas engineers did not design their technologies with high heat in mind). As rock becomes harder, equipment must also be hardened to additional vibrations. And electronics need to be better insulated.

The Eavor-lite project is only mining heat of about 70°C. (It was not intended to be commercially viable.) To make geothermal work, Eavor and other companies will need to master going deeper and hotter. “You can’t economically produce geothermal energy at 90°C,” Beard says. “150, yeah, you’re getting there. 250, oh, yeah. 300, you’re solid.”

She stresses that there are no insuperable barriers if enough technical know-how and capital are brought to bear. The problem of extracting geothermal from deep, dry, hot rock, she says, “is largely an incremental engineering problem that, when solved, solves energy.”

“Solves energy” might sound like big talk, but in this case, it is not idle.

 

temp at 10km deep

 

 

SMU

 

The extraordinary promise of geothermal

The main problem facing renewable energy is that the biggest sources, wind and solar, are variable. Whereas fossil fuel power plants that run on coal and gas are “dispatchable” — they can be turned on and off on demand — wind and solar come and go with, well, the wind and sun.

Building an electricity system around wind and solar thus means filling in the gaps, finding sources, technologies, and practices that can jump in when wind and solar fall short (say, at night). And the electricity system needs to be extremely secure and robust, because decarbonizing means electrifying everything, moving transportation and heat over to electricity, which will substantially raise total electricity demand.

The big disputes in the clean energy world thus tend to be about how far wind, solar, and batteries can get on their own — 50 percent of total power demand? 80 percent? 100?) and what sources should be used to supplement them. (See this much-cited 2018 paper in the journal Joule on the need for “firm, low-carbon resources.”)

The answer currently favored by renewable energy advocates is more energy storage, but at least for now, storage remains far too expensive and limited to do the full job. The other top possibilities for “firming” electricity supply — nuclear power or fossil power with carbon capture and sequestration — have their own issues and passionate constituencies for and against.

Geothermal power, if it can be made to reliably and economically work in hotter, drier, and deeper rock, is a perfect complement to wind and solar. It is renewable and inexhaustible. It can run as baseload power around the clock, including at night, or “load follow” to complement renewables’ fluctuations. It is available almost everywhere in the world, a reliable source of domestic energy and jobs that, because it is largely underground, is resilient to most weather (and human) disasters. It can operate without pollution or greenhouse gases. The same source that makes the electricity can also be used to fuel district heating systems that decarbonize the building sector.

It checks all the boxes.

“Our challenge is not that we have any enemies,” says Latimer. “If you want to talk to Democrats, we produce carbon-free electricity 24/7 — the last piece of the puzzle for a fully decarbonized electricity sector. If you talk to Republicans, it’s American ingenuity putting our drilling fleet to work on a resource that’s fuel-secure, doesn’t rely on imports, and puts the oil and gas people back to work. It’s a beautiful bipartisan story. The problem is we just don’t get talked about.”

Oil and gas to the rescue?

One thing that might get more people talking about geothermal is the somewhat serendipitous opportunity it offers to the oil and gas industry, which is reeling from oversupply, persistently low prices, and cratering demand caused by the pandemic. Consequently, it is hemorrhaging jobs.

 

Natural gas fracking in Wyoming

 

 

Lots of folks around who know a thing or two about drilling.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

 

Geothermal is buzzing with startups that specifically need innovation and expertise in drilling technology, the very skills many oil and gas workers already have. They could put those skills to work making the planet safer for future generations. That skills match is what animates Beard’s geothermal entrepreneurship organization and the $4.65 million contest that DOE launched this year to pair geothermal innovations with partners in the manufacturing industry.

There’s never been a better time to start or join a geothermal startup — most of them will fail, but there’s a future billionaire in there somewhere.

Industry veterans have taken notice. It made waves when, a few months ago, the “Frack King” — Mukul Sharma, an O&G engineer at UT Austin who has been key in the development of hydraulic fracturing — launched a new EGS venture called Geothermix.

“When we started in the unconventional [oil and gas] space, there were a lot of issues that needed to be resolved, but over time we have increased well productivity by a factor of 4 to 10 in many shale basins,” he told Heat Beat. “We are very early on the learning curve in the EGS context, but I have no doubt that we will be able to translate oil and gas learnings from the past decade and successfully deploy these methods in EGS.”

Latimer was an O&G engineer before he shifted to geothermal. Sage Geosystems was founded by Lev Ring and Lance Cook, two longtime O&G veterans. Eavor employs several O&G veterans.

The industry is taking notice as well. “We got a nice little head start, and we’re running like hell to stay ahead of it,” says Redfern, “but yeah, [oil and gas majors] are definitely turning their attention to this.”

What’s likely is that oil and gas majors will eventually start buying up geothermal startups. Investments in geothermal would give them a way to shelter part of their portfolio from the brutal oil market.

And geothermal is a more natural match than wind and solar for many of these companies. “The fact that it leverages industry core competencies for the purpose of producing clean energy,” Rao said, “will give it staying power in the industry, regardless of energy market conditions.”

Geothermal remains a relatively small industry, with a market cap in the single-digit billions, while oil and gas is a trillion-dollar industry. There’s no realistic way geothermal can promise to absorb all the jobs currently being lost in oil and gas.

Nonetheless, geothermal offers O&G something it badly needs: a port in a storm. It’s a growing clean energy industry that needs a smart workforce trained in exploration and drilling. Oil and gas has one of those.

Recent oil and gas technology innovations are going to turbocharge geothermal, especially if policymakers can get their act together and offer some support. There’s a steep learning curve ahead and they’re just now accelerating into it, but the next decade is likely to be more active for geothermal than the past four.

With an inexhaustible, dispatchable, flexible renewable energy source so close to breaking through, the vision of a fully renewably powered world seems less and less utopian, more and more tantalizingly within reach.


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Youth sports have been hit with few coronavirus outbreaks so far. Why is ice hockey so different?

Emily walpole

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“Whole hockey teams are getting quarantined,” said Bellemore, a hockey parent, coach and president of the Manchester Youth Regional Hockey Association. “It’s getting very real.”

State officials and other authorities have been scrambling to mitigate the damage: On Nov. 12, seven governors in the Northeast banded together to ban all interstate youth hockey until at least the end of the year. The following week, health officials in Minnesota, where hockey is associated with the most clusters of any youth sport, put all sports on “pause” for four weeks. Many others have imposed new restrictions and safety measures on the game.

Youth sports — soccer, basketball, cross-country, swimming, whether held indoors or out, a source of American pride, prestige and bonding — were among the first gatherings to be allowed post-lockdown. Organizers worked closely with public health officials to make modifications that balance safety with maintaining the spirit of the games. This has worked to some extent.

While public health officials suspect off-field interactions may be contributing to community spread, there’s little hard data. In most areas, there have been few to no documented outbreaks, much less superspreader events.

Ice hockey is an anomaly. Scientists are studying hockey-related outbreaks hoping to find clues about the ideal conditions in which the coronavirus thrives — and how to stop it. Experts speculate that ice rinks may trap the virus around head level in a rink that, by design, restricts airflow, temperature and humidity.

The hockey-related cases have been especially striking, epidemiologists have said, because clubs followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention limits on gathering size and had numerous social distancing measures in place. In retrospect, one mistake by some clubs was that until recently masks had been required on ice for only the two players doing the initial faceoff for the puck — although many players wore clear face shields, which theoretically should have a similar effect.

“We’re watching hockey very carefully because it’s the first major sport that’s been played indoors predominantly and also during the winter months,” said Ryan Demmer, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health.

Demmer said the cases provide some of the first real-world evidence to support early theories about the importance of how people breathe, ventilation, and the social dimensions of transmission.

One critical way hockey differs from other contact team sports is how players do line changes — substitutions of groups of players — and are expected to sprint for nearly the whole time they are on the ice. Experts say it probably leads to heavier breathing, resulting in more particles being exhaled and inhaled.

Jose-Luis Jimenez, an air engineer at the University of Colorado, speculated that the spaces occupied by rinks keep the virus suspended, perhaps six to nine feet, just above the ice. Similar outbreaks have been documented in other chilly venues — meat processing factories and at a curling match earlier in the pandemic.

“I suspect the air is stratified,” he said. “Much like in a cold winter night, you have these inversions where the cold air with the virus which is heavier stays closer to the ground. That gives players many more chances to breathe it in.”

Timothy McDonald, public health director in Needham, Mass., said we should not rule out the way kids socialize — in locker rooms, carpools and postgame gatherings — as potential contributing factors. By late October, his area had seen at least six coronavirus cases related to sports clusters that span a wide range of ages, from fifth-graders to high school sophomores. He said some of those children played on multiple sports teams, including hockey.

“We’ve seen a lot of people mingling after the game or having discussions and parents talking and letting kids play around after the game,” he said. “There’s no way to tell from our perspective whether it’s on the ice — or waiting for 10 or 15 minutes while everyone talks after the game.”

Many unknowns

When schools shut down in March, there was huge confusion about the extent to which could get the virus and transmit it to others. Today, cases among those younger than 18 are soaring. The American Academy of Pediatrics reported last week that more than 1.3 million children had tested positive for coronavirus during the pandemic. Nearly 154,000 children tested positive from Nov. 19 to 26.

Epidemiologists are uncertain where most of these transmissions are occurring, but early reports from the United States, bolstered by more robust data from Europe and Asia, suggest they are unlikely to be related to school. Emily Oster, a professor of economics at Brown University who has been tracking coronavirus outbreaks in schools, and others say they believe informal neighborhood get-togethers, youth sports and other activities may be contributing.

Rhode Island, for example, has reported that virtual-only learners are being infected at similar rates as those attending in-person school. Oster said infection rates seem to be going up nationwide, “whether schools are open or not.”

Joseph Allen, a researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said he believes it was a mistake for school sports to shut down, because kids need physical activity, and some for-profit businesses filling the gaps may be operating in a way where “controls may not be as stringent.”

“Not having sports in schools ultimately leads to wider contact networks for many kids,” he explained.

David Rubin, director of the PolicyLab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said the “disease reservoir was lower” related to children in the early fall, suggesting that sports played at that time — namely, soccer — weren’t contributing much to spread. “We saw very little transmission on the field of play,” he said.

“In winter sports, you now add the indoor element. And I think there’s a fair amount of concern that hockey certainly has transmission around the game,” he said.

A PolicyLab blog post last month recommended that if youth sports leagues want to preserve any opportunity to keep playing, they need to enact mandates that strictly curtail all off-field interaction. Even then, “the potential for on-field spread may be too overwhelming to continue safely with team competition during periods of widespread community transmission, and may need to be sacrificed to preserve in-school learning options, at least until early spring or transmission rates decrease substantially.”

When children’s sports started up again this summer, tensions flared among health officials, sports providers and families over which safety measures were necessary and which were over the top. In the pandemic world, soccer was sometimes played seven-on-seven instead of 11-on-11, and with kick-ins instead of throw-ins; basketball with every other spot in free-throw lineups empty; swim practices with some kids starting in the middle of lanes to ensure adequate spacing; cross-country with runners racing in small flights to minimize interactions.

But these modifications sent some families “jurisdiction shopping” to find places that allowed games to proceed as they had before the virus outbreak, and this was a part of what happened with hockey in New England.

Hockey culture

Ice hockey is part of the culture in this area of the country. Some kids get their first skates almost as soon as they can walk, and family weekends revolve around games. In the aftermath of the first wave of the virus, clubs in numerous states, including Massachusetts, introduced safety measures such as no checking at the younger levels, physical distancing in locker rooms, and masks for the two players doing the faceoffs.

Massachusetts Hockey President Bob Joyce said families who didn’t like those new rules took their children to play in neighboring states with fewer restrictions. And sometimes those players played on multiple teams or had siblings who did and went to school, creating very large social networks.

“It was a wake-up call,” Joyce said. He said state officials estimated that those 108 initial hockey cases amounted to 3,000 to 4,000 others potentially exposed.

In an October report, the CDC detailed a large outbreak in Florida among amateur adult hockey players on two teams that played each other but had no other contact. Investigators speculated that the indoor space and close contact increased the infection risk. They also pointed out that ice hockey “involves vigorous physical exertion accompanied by deep, heavy respiration, and during the game, players frequently move from the ice surface to the bench while still breathing heavily.”

Surrounded by plexiglass not only to prevent errant pucks but also to keep the airflow stable so the ice can remain cold, there’s little ventilation and humidity by design in ice rinks. The surface of the ice is kept around 20 degrees Fahrenheit; the ambient air temperature, in the 50s. The Department of Homeland Security has shown in lab experiments that the virus may live at those temperatures up to two times longer in the air. At 86 degrees, for example, 99 percent of the airborne virus is estimated to decay in 52 minutes. But at 50 degrees, it would take 109 minutes.

William Bahnfleth, a professor of architectural engineering at Penn State University, said there is growing evidence that humidity may play an important role. In higher humidity, the virus attaches to bigger droplets that drop faster to the ground, decreasing the chance that someone will inhale them. The drier the air, the faster droplets will evaporate into smaller-size particles that stay in the air, increasing the concentration.

“There are some researchers have come to believe that humidification is the key above all,” he said.

Studies have shown that the virus doesn’t survive as long in the humid air, and that we’re more susceptible to viruses when the air is drier. Separately, epidemiological data from a long-term care facility has shown a correlation between lower humidity and higher infection rates.

Rubin, who is a pediatrician in addition to his public policy research job, said he worries those on the ice may be inhaling larger doses of the virus due to these environmental conditions, making it more likely they will become infected.

“It’s very hard to sort out, but you wonder if increased inoculum of the virus is an extra factor,” he said.

Demming expressed similar thoughts: “It could be infection rates are common across sports, but in a sport like hockey where you are trapping more virus in the breathable air it could result in more severe infections that end up being symptomatic.”

The National Hockey League was able to complete its playoffs after players were put in a bubble where they were tested each day, administered symptom checks and temperature screenings. No cases were reported. But conducting such rigorous screening on the roughly 650,000 amateur players and officials in the United States is an impossible task.

In Vermont, an outbreak at a single ice rink ripped through the center of the state, affecting at least 20 towns in at least four counties, and seeding other outbreaks at several schools. By Oct. 30, when Vermont Gov. Phil Scott (R) detailed the outbreak at a press briefing, 473 contacts had been associated with it.

“One case,” Scott emphasized, “can turn one event into many.”

For Tyler Amburgey, a 29-year-old coach in Lavon, Texas, north of Dallas, the coronavirus started out like a cold. But then it soon progressed to a headache, fatigue and shortness of breath. Authorities later determined that the outbreak spanned several teams and 30 people. By the third day of his illness, Aug. 29, several of Amburgey’s players had tested positive, and he was so ill that he canceled hockey practice.

Later that day his wife found him in his bed, unresponsive, and called 911. His heart had stopped, relatives told media outlets, and paramedics were unable to revive him.

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Weekly unemployment claims still trending up

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by Timothy McQuiston, Vermont Business Magazine Weekly unemployment claims fell last week after the previous week’s spike, but have been trending up consistently the last two months. After being near their lowest levels since the beginning of the pandemic, claims have increased beyond the usual seasonal slowdown. Claims fell 224 to 1,255 last week (up 131 from the same time last year).

As for the week’s ongoing jobless claims, for the week ending November 11, 2020, the Labor Department processed 11,337 claims, down 1,292 from the previous week and 7,237 more than the same time last year.

As for further comparison, initial Vermont claims for the week of March 21, 2020, were 3,784, up 3,125 from the week of March 14.

Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington said at Governor Scott’s media briefing Friday that he has a lot of concern for the end of CARES Act funding and therefore the pandemic unemployment benefits and extended benefits for UI filers that came with it.

The extra benefits will cease the week after Christmas for nearly all those filers. Like the governor, he is hopeful that Congress will come up with what Scott called “bridge” funding for these programs until the Biden Administration and the new Congress can come up with a new CARES Act type funding plan. There does appear that some level of federal help will be forthcoming.

The governor is also hoping that funding includes budget relief for states, but he is less certain of that.

Harrington added that there are still some appeals and adjudications continuing regarding those pandemic benefits and that otherwise nearly all of the last of the emergency unemployment Lost Wages Assistance money has been distributed. The LWA was the last and smallest of the unemployment benefit programs.

The federal government portion of extra benefits, which is nearly all of the pandemic funding, must meet strict guidelines and there is very little the state can do to mitigate an issue.

The total number of unemployed is about 20,000, including the extra PUA claimants, which is down from the peak last spring of over 80,000 Vermonters getting some type of unemployment insurance.

There is recent discussion in Congress that a plan could be enacted during the “lame duck” session, but more likely after President-elect Biden is inaugurated.

Meanwhile, the state unemployment rate, which was the lowest in the nation before the pandemic, then spiked during the pandemic, has retreated and is now second lowest in the nation.

However, the VDOL points out that the US Census modeling has not caught up with the reality of the pandemic and Vermont’s 3.2 percent unemployment rate likely portrays a rosier economic picture than what actually exists.

Labor Commissioner Harrington said in late November that the real unemployment rate is more in the 5 percent range, and if it included the PUA, the rate is likely more in the 6-8 percent range.

He and Scott said that while the data the US Census collects is not erroneous, they disagree with the methodology the federal government is using given the altered behavior of people during the pandemic.

They said people have left the workforce for reasons related to the pandemic, like for personal safety or childcare, which then lowers the total Labor force, which works as the denominator in the calculations, thus lowering the unemployment rate.

Per federal rule, this ultimately decreases the ability of the state to offer extended UI benefits, as they were able earlier in the year.

Governor Scott said the state has been in contact with Vermont’s congressional delegation on trying to change the formula the US Census Bureau uses to determine the state’s unemployment rate.

There are also over 8,000 Vermonters on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (sole proprietors/self employed etc).

The PUA claims are not included in the unemployment rate calculation.

Harrington also addressed issues faced by the self-employed in collecting benefits.

If SPs did not file their tax returns by a certain time they missed out on some benefits. Harrington said this is a federal government rule. The state was allowed a 21-day grace period, but cases are still being adjudicated.

Also, another issue has been when a self-employed person received even one dollar of regular UI benefits, they are disallowed, again by federal rule Harrington said, from receiving any PUA.

For instance, some people who work for themselves also carry a part-time job. If they got laid off from that job and received any UI payments, then they’re stuck on the UI side and cannot get PUA.

The PUA benefits in some cases are more advantageous; for instance they will last through the end of this year. PUA claimants also can get partial payments even if they have some income.

What a new PUA looks like is unclear until and if one is signed into law. But it appears as of now that it might not include new filers after a certain time.

Scott has also extended his Emergency Order until December 15. He has said that he will continue to extend the Order as long as necessary and that we are “only half-way through” the impact of the novel coronavirus.

Also, the $1.25 billion CARES Act federal funds have all been allocated, though some budgetary shifting could still occur. The money must be spent by the end of December.

Also, the additional $600 in weekly benefits from the federal government for all unemployment programs ended July 25.

The PUA program, which is full funded by the federal government and is intended for non-regular UI workers, will last until the end of the year. They will receive regular benefits (but, again, not the extra $600).

“That $600 is concerning. I know a lot of families are counting on that to cover a lot of their expenses,” Scott said over the summer.

After a spike of claims at the beginning of the pandemic, followed by a steep decline as the economy began to reopen in April, initial unemployment claims fell consistently since the beginning of July before flattening over the last couple months.

Claims hit their peak in early April. At that point, Governor Scott’s “Stay Home” order resulted in the closing of schools, restaurants, construction and more, while many other industries cut back operations.

Over $500 million of federal money has been added to Vermont unemployment checks so far.

Since March 1, over 80,000 new claims have been filed in Vermont when including PUA.

The official Vermont March unemployment rate was 3.1 percent, but the April rate was 15.6 percent, which is the highest on record. The Vermont unemployment rate in May fell to 12.7 percent.

The US rate fell to 7.9 percent in September from 8.4 percent in August from 10.2 percent in July from 11.1 percent in June and in May from 13.3 percent. The US April rate was 14.7 percent, the highest rate since its was first calculated in 1948 and the highest unofficially since the Great Depression of about 25 percent.

Nationwide, according to the US Labor Department for the week ending November 28, initial claims for state unemployment benefits totaled 712,000 last week, which was the lowest since the beginning of the pandemic and down from 787,000 the week before and 742,000 the week before that.

Claims generally have been falling since the early weeks of the pandemic in March. Early on in the pandemic, US claims reached 5.2 million and 6.6 million claims. Just prior to the steep job loss, there were 282,000 claims on March 14.

US GDP had its worst quarter on record as it fell 32.9 percent in the second quarter; the next worst was in 1921.

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) has added to the ranks of those receiving benefits, but is not counted in the official unemployment rate. The PUA serves the self-employed who previously did not qualify to receive UI benefits and might still be working to some extent.

This surge during the Great Recession for the entire year in 2009 spiked at 38,081 claims.

The claims back in 2009 pushed the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund into deficit and required the state to borrow money from the federal government to cover claims.

Right now (see data below), Vermont has $252.2 million in its Trust Fund and saw the fund decrease by a net of $3.3 million last week. Payments lag claims typically by a week. Balance as of March 1 was $506,157,247.

Vermont at the beginning of the pandemic had more than double the UI Trust Fund it did when the economy started to slide in 2007. It went into deficit and the state had to borrow money from the federal government to pay claims. Some states like California are already in UI deficit because of the COVID crisis.

Scott said the UI fund is not expected to run out under current projections.

“We are in a much healthier position than many other states,” Labor Commissioner Harrington has said.

Given the Trust Fund’s strong performance and the burden of unemployment taxes on employers, Governor Scott reduced the UI tax on businesses. He also announced that starting the first week of July, the maximum unemployment benefit to workers will increase about $20 a week.

While the UI Trust Fund will not fall into deficit under current trends, the governor has acknowledged that they simply cannot predict it given how economic conditions could swing if there is a second surge of COVID-19.

Still, he’s moving forward with the UI changes now because the burden on employers and employees is now.

Stories:

Vermont’s unemployment rate falls to 3.2 percent in October

Over $100 million in recovery grants awarded, still more available

Businesses to see double-digit rate decrease in workers’ comp insurance in 2020

Tax revenues finish year nearly $60 million above targets

UI tax rates for employers fell again on July 1, 2018, as claims continue to be lower than previous projections. Individual employers’ reduced taxable wage rates will vary according to their experience rating; however, the rate reduction will lower the highest UI tax rate from 7.7 percent to 6.5 percent. The lowest UI tax rate will see a reduction from 1.1 percent to 0.8 percent.

Also effective July 1, 2018, the maximum weekly unemployment benefit will be indexed upwards to 57% of the average weekly wage. The current maximum weekly benefit amount is $466, which will increase to $498. Both changes are directly tied to the change in the Tax Rate Schedule.

The Vermont Department of Labor announced Thursday, October 1, 2020 an increase to the State’s minimum wage. Beginning January 1, 2021, the State’s minimum wage will increase $0.79, from $10.96 to $11.75 per hour. The calculation for this increase is in accordance with Act 86 of the 2019 Vermont General Assembly.

This adjustment also impacts the minimum wage of “tipped employees.” The Basic Tipped Wage Rate for service or tipped employees equals 50% of the full minimum wage or $5.88 per hour starting January 1, 2021.

The Vermont Department of Labor has announced that the state is set to trigger off of the High Extended Benefits program, as of October 10, 2020. This determination by the US Department of Labor follows the recent announcement of Vermont’s unemployment rate decreasing from 8.3% in July to 4.8% in August.

Vermont’s minimum wage rose to $10.78 on January 1, 2019.

The Unemployment Weekly Report can be found at: http://www.vtlmi.info/. Previously released Unemployment Weekly Reports and other UI reports can be found at: http://www.vtlmi.info/lmipub.htm#uc

NOTE: Employment (nonfarm payroll) – A count of all persons who worked full- or part-time or received pay from a nonagricultural employer for any part of the pay period which included the 12th of the month. Because this count comes from a survey of employers, persons who work for two different companies would be counted twice. Therefore, nonfarm payroll employment is really a count of the number of jobs, rather than the number of persons employed. Persons may receive pay from a job if they are temporarily absent due to illness, bad weather, vacation, or labor-management dispute. This count is based on where the jobs are located, regardless of where the workers reside, and is therefore sometimes referred to as employment “by place of work.” Nonfarm payroll employment data are collected and compiled based on the Current Employment Statistics (CES) survey, conducted by the Vermont Department of Labor. This count was formerly referred to as nonagricultural wage and salary employment.

UI claims by industry last week in Vermont are similar in percentage to those from a year ago, though of course much higher in number in each industrial category.

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Live updates: Walz urges Minnesotans to apply for COVID-19 housing assistance before Monday deadline

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Here are the latest updates on COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Thursday, Dec. 3

  • MDH reported 92 COVID deaths on Thursday, the second highest in a single day
  • Minnesotans have until Dec. 7 at 11:59 p.m. to request housing assistance
  • MSHSL sets tentative schedule for winter sports, depending on Gov. Tim Walz order
  • Hospital bed use down across Minnesota
  • Officials say we are at the endgame of the pandemic with upcoming vaccines
  • Experts concerned about possible surge after Thanksgiving travel, gatherings

Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan are urging Minnesotans to draw upon state aid for their end-of-year housing bills.

In a media call at 1 p.m. Gov. Walz highlighted efforts to “ensure Minnesotans can afford to stay in their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Minnesotans can apply for housing assistance through the United Way by calling 211. The deadline is Monday. Dec. 7 at 11:59 p.m.

Walz pointed out that Minnesota is still in the heart of the pandemic, with the second-highest daily death toll of 92 announced on Thursday.

“Throughout this entire epidemic we’ve asked Minnesotans to sacrifice,” Walz said. “We’ve asked them to do things that put their own financial security somewhat at risk, to help protect others.”

The governor said he understands that some people don’t have a safe place to go, or they’re in danger of losing that safe place, when they’re asked to stay home.

“A lot of folks are in a situation where housing security is a real concern through no fault of their own,” Walz said.

Lt. Gov. Flanagan said she is a renter and paid her rent on Tuesday. But she knows that some Minnesotans are deciding between paying their rent or mortgage, and buying groceries.

“I want folks to know that there are still resources available to help you and your family,” she said.

Flanagan said home owners should ask their lenders if they can defer payment for up to a year. And anyone can apply for housing assistance via 211unitedway.org, or by calling 211, before the deadline of Monday, Dec. 7 at 11:59 p.m.

Those who don’t need assistance should consider giving to the nonprofits that are helping others, Flanagan said, and telling their friends and family about the assistance that’s available.

“We cannot stop until all Minnesotans have a safe and affordable place to live,” Flanagan said.

Emily Bastian, vice president of ending homelessness at Minnesota nonprofit Avivo, spoke about efforts to support the people living in homeless encampments in the Twin Cities.

“There is no one path from homelessness to permanent housing,” she said.

Bastian emphasized the importance of state and local governments partnering with the nonprofit sector to make that support possible.

Gov. Walz said it’s important to recognize the humanity in those experiencing homelessness, “not seeing it as a problem that we wish would just go away.”

The governor also said that the last week has given him hope that there will be a federal COVID-19 relief package.

There’s $100 million available in Minnesota’s Housing Assistance Program, which was announced in July. Minnesota Housing Commissioner Jennifer Ho said there are currently requests for $67 million in assistance as of the end of November. That means there’s a little over $30 million left to dole out, and she hopes many people will still request assistance with December rent.

“We’ve got room for one more big push here to pay December bills,” she said.

Ho said that the reason the program is closing on Dec. 7 is so that state officials have time to go through all the applications, allocate funds, and then potentially reallocate any leftover money.

COVID-19 is continuing to take a significant number of lives in Minnesota, with 92 new fatalities reported by state health officials on Thursday

Those deaths are the second highest single-day total since the pandemic began, only behind the 101 deaths reported the Friday after Thanksgiving. The total number of lives lost in the state now sits at 3,784. Thursday’s near-record comes just one day after the third-highest daily death toll of 77.

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) says 6,166 new coronavirus cases were reported Thursday, based on results from 50,718 tests (45,885 PCR, 4,833 antigen) processed in private and state labs.

A positive PCR test is considered a confirmed case, while a positive antigen test is considered probable.

Minnesota now reports 333,626 COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic.

Hospitalizations due to the coronavirus in Minnesota are continuing a downward trend. COVID-19 patients are currently using 1,394 non-ICU beds across the state – 29 fewer than the day prior, and 376 ICU beds – nine fewer than the previous day. Metro bed availability has improved from 1.9% to 2.3%, and ICU bed availability in the metro has grown from 4.5% to 5.7%.

The total number of patients hospitalized since COVID hit Minnesota is 17,623, with 3,911 of those requiring treatment in the ICU.

COVID-19 case rates now put 86 of 87 Minnesota counties under full distance learning recommendations from MDH, although community spread is only one factor of many schools are instructed to use to determine their learning model.

Leading causes of exposure for those who have tested positive include community exposure with no known contact (62,312 cases) followed by a known contact (55,953 cases) and exposure through a congregate care setting (26,100 cases).

Young people 20 to 24 make up the largest group of cases with 35,289 and two deaths, followed by those 25 to 29 with 30,360 and four deaths. The greatest number of fatalities involves people 85 to 89 with 712 in 4,244 confirmed cases.

Hennepin County has the most recorded COVID activity with 70,069 cases and 1,145 deaths, followed by Ramsey County with 29,459 cases and 521 deaths, Dakota County with 23,564 cases and 198 deaths and Anoka County with 23,541 cases and 236 fatalities.

Cook County in northeastern Minnesota has the least amount of COVID activity with 80 cases and no deaths.

On Wednesday, Governor Tim Walz, Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington and several first responders spoke to Minnesotans to address the way the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted public safety and emergency response.

Walz said that he hopes to highlight aspects of everyday life that are impacted by the pandemic that many Minnesotans may not typically  consider. According to Walz, the workforce of firefighters, police officers and paramedics in Minnesota has been affected by COVID-19, which can impact their ability to respond to emergencies.

Harrington emphasized that this is a statewide issue, and that he is hearing every day from fire departments and police departments that are having staffing issues due to COVID-19.

He added that fire departments have been hit particularly hard.

“Ninety-nine out of the 500 fire departments in the state of Minnesota have had major COVID outbreaks,” he said. “That’s 20%.”

He stressed that the state has worked to rearrange resources and take precautions to keep departments staffed, but it won’t take much to take those departments out of service if communities do not wear masks, avoid gatherings and social distance.

Eagan Police Chief Roger New said that his department has followed CDC guidelines since the pandemic began, but he has still seen 20% of his staff take time off due to COVID-19 quarantines at some point since March, including one staff member who was hospitalized and took two months to fully recover.

Jay Wood, a firefighter in Plato, said that the Plato Fire Department has also carefully followed guidelines, but an outbreak that affected over three quarters of the department forced them to take the department out of service for a time.

“We are not alone as a small department of dealing with the virus and the staffing issues it has presented to us,” he said. “Minnesota fire services are always here to help the public, and people always ask how they can help us. The biggest thing you can do is follow the guidelines the governor and the Department of Health have set for us.”

Paramedic Ross Chavez echoed this, urging Minnesotans to follow advice from health experts to help keep first responders in the community healthy so they can continue providing fast and effective emergency services.

“Please, help my colleagues and me be there for those who need us, especially this holiday season during these trying times,” Chavez said.

Walz said that for Minnesotans frustrated by other community members not following these guidelines, he does not want to shame anyone, but it is a “moral hazard” to not wear a mask and go to large gatherings.

“We’re not going to be able to arrest everybody, that was certainly never our intention,” he said. “You don’t have to follow these rules because I said so, you don’t have to follow them because you don’t like government. You should follow them because they’re the right thing to do, they protect lives.”

Walz added that by next Tuesday, he hopes he and state health officials will have a clear timeline for a COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S. Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Commissioner Jan Malcolm said she expects the FDA will issue an emergency use authorization on Dec. 11, and that the first wave of vaccinations could begin as soon as a week or so later.

Walz said he understands concerns around safety of the vaccine, but his assessment has been that the federal government has done a “fantastic job” of the vaccine development.

However, he stressed that though the excitement around the vaccine may indicate that the pandemic is over, we are still “in the teeth of it.”

“Let’s make sure we get all of our neighbors there, and protect those folks that make a difference,” he said.

The resurgence of COVID-19 in Minnesota is proving deadly, as underscored by 77 new fatalities reported by state health officials Wednesday.

Those deaths are the second highest single-day total since the pandemic came to Minnesota, only behind the 101 deaths reported the Friday after Thanksgiving. The total number of lives lost in the state now sits at 3,692.

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) says 5,192 new coronavirus cases were reported Wednesday, based on results from 42,737 tests (39,912 PCR, 2,825 Antigen) processed in private and state labs.

A positive PCR test is considered a confirmed case, while a positive Antigen test is considered probable.

Minnesota now reports 327,477 COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic.

In a bit of positive news, hospital bed use is down after a surge in recent days. Coronavirus patients are currently using 1,350 non-ICU beds, down 104 from Tuesday, and 354 ICU beds across the state are being used for COVID patients, down 40 from a day ago.

The total number of patients hospitalized since COVID hit Minnesota is 17,378, with 3,873 of those requiring treatment in the ICU.

Leading causes of exposure for those who have tested positive include community exposure with no known contact (60,808 cases) followed by a known contact (54,554 cases) and exposure through a congregate care setting (25,695 cases).

Young people 20 to 24 make up the largest group of cases by a significant margin with 34,806 and two deaths, followed by those 25 to 29 with 29,876 and four deaths. The greatest number of fatalities involves people 85 to 89 with 691 in 4,156 confirmed cases.

Hennepin County has the most recorded COVID activity with 68,898 cases and 1,130 deaths, followed by Ramsey County with 28,948 cases and 512 deaths, Anoka County with 23,196 cases and 232 fatalities, and Dakota County with 23,102 cases and 194 deaths.

Cook County in northeastern Minnesota has the least amount of COVID activity with 79 cases and no deaths.

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