Graham Briggs said 26 COVID-19 deaths in Olmsted County highlight differences between the virus and seasonal flu.
“I know there has been discussion about this is just the flu or something, but we can see in those numbers that one out of five people dying between the ages of 80 and 89, I can tell you is not just the flu,” the Olmsted County Public Health director said.
While the COVID-related death rate in Olmsted County for people in their 60s is 6 percent, it jumps to 20 percent for people in their 80s and 47 percent for people 90 or older who have been confirmed with cases of COVID.
At the same time, Briggs said a 29-year-old Olmsted County resident died from the illness, indicating a larger threat.
Overall, the average age of people who died as a result of COVID in the county is 72.9, with a range that spans nearly seven decades. The oldest county resident to have died was 96.
“We have quite a range there,” Briggs said.
While all the local deaths occurred in people with underlying health conditions, Briggs said they weren’t as sick prior to contracting COVID as some people believe. The most commonly reported underlying conditions were high blood pressure, liver or kidney disease, and diabetes.
Briggs said a large percentage of the U.S. population faces similar conditions.
The insights presented to Olmsted County commissioners this week were made possible through a deeper look at the local pandemic-related fatalities.
“We knew anecdotally a little bit, but when we got to 25, the number is getting big enough that we can start using some statistics to understand what is happening,” he said.
The county’s rate of COVID deaths -- 16.4 per 100,000 residents -- is less than half the statewide rate of 34.1 deaths per 100,000.
The national rate nearly doubles again, with 59.2 deaths per 100,000 residents, and Briggs said New Jersey has reported the highest statewide rate with 180.5 deaths per 100,000 residents.
A look at the numbers also highlight improvements in the local response.
“We were unfortunate that we saw COVID-19 move into long-term care facilities fairly rapidly as soon as we saw it in our community,” he said, pointing to April as being the month with the county’s largest number of deaths.
He said reduced rates in later months were connected to efforts to trace the illness and keep it from spreading. He said the sources of 85 percent of confirmed cases have been identified.
“As time has gone by, we’ve learned how to fight this virus, and we have gotten better and better at interrupting transmission and stopping outbreaks once we do see them,” he said.
Of the county’s 26 deaths, 65 percent occurred among residents of long-term care facilities, slightly lower than the statewide rate of 73 percent.
“It’s a little bit lower, but we’re in the same ballpark with what the rest of the state is seeing,” Briggs said.
Briggs said Olmsted County, like other parts of the country, is also seeing racial disparities connected to COVID-related deaths.
While 84 percent of the county’s population is white, only 73 percent of deaths were among white residents.
At the same time, 15 percent of the deaths were among the Black population, which accounts for just 7 percent of Olmsted County residents.
Deaths are also more likely to occur in men, Briggs said.
Locally, 45 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases have been in men, but men account for 58 percent of the deaths.
Breaking down the numbers provides some insights as well as a sobering look at reality.
“While our rate is low, we have 26 families in this community grieving right now associated with COVID-19, and that’s a number higher than I would ever like to see," Briggs said. "But that is the reality of the situation here.”