Coronavirus in Minnesota and Norway

Measures to flatten the curve taking effect, but still early days

Coronavirus in Minnesota

The graph shows how the number of cases in Norway and Minnesota has grown since the first case was reported in each country, respectively.

The Norwegian American

I flew from Norway to Minnesota on Feb. 26. When I transferred in Amsterdam, security for the U.S.-bound flight asked me if I had been in China. No, I had not been in China. So, I got on a 3/4-full flight for Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport. 

In Minnesota, so far, no one had been confirmed to have the virus. But, when I met my family that evening in Minnesota, they told me the first case of COVID-19 had been confirmed in Norway. The next day, three more cases were confirmed. At the time of writing this article on April 4, the count is 5,510 Norwegians confirmed to be infected by the “novel coronavirus,” causing 50 deaths and requiring intensive care for 106 patients on that day. And on April 4, the numbers in Minnesota are 865 infected, 24 deaths so far, and 42 patients in the ICU. 

Exponential growth

Worldwide on April 4 there were more than 1 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, causing more than 60,000 deaths in the period since the outbreak started. The first cases were confirmed in China around the New Year, but the very first case was probably in November. The thing to note here is that there was a first case; the whole epidemic started with one person becoming infected with a “novel” form of coronavirus. 

Let’s think a bit about exponential growth. To get a handle on what that means, consider this riddle: if the number of algae in a pond are doubling every day, and the pond is completely full on Sunday, on which day of the week was it half full? Think about it and try to solve it for yourself.

Back to coronavirus, think first one person, then two, four, eight, 16, and then how long to 1 million? Well, from start of December through March is four months. How long will it take from 1 million to become 2 million? Based on the current trend, it doubles every six days. By the time you get your next issue of this paper, we will likely see global totals well above 2 million. 

But aren’t we special?

Minnesota and Norway are special and, in many ways, like each other. Both have populations of around 5 million people. The bulk of the population is clustered around its biggest cities (albeit the Drammen-to-Oslo-to-Moss swath accounts for only about 1.5 million compared to the more than 3 million in the Twin Cities area) with the rest in smaller cities, towns, and rural crossroads. Plus, both Norway and Minnesota have a reputation for having strong leaders and an educated populace. Perhaps both places are better suited than the rest of the world to meet this crisis?

So far so “good”

The graph shows how the number of cases in Norway and Minnesota has grown since the first case was reported. As noted, the first report in Norway was Feb. 25, whereas in Minnesota, it was March 6. Norway instituted a national “lockdown” on March 12, after cases spiked to 400. Minnesota went into “lockdown” on March 27, also with around 400 cases. 

But Minnesotans were already starting to do social distancing by this time. Minnesota had 10 extra days to learn from examples abroad, like the horror story of Italy (somehow, many of us missed the horror story in China a month earlier).  Early on, it was clear that several individuals living in different counties had brought the virus into Minnesota. 

The same was the case for Norway, where cases came from around the world, including from several Norwegians who returned from ski vacations in Austria and Italy. The numbers in the graph show that both Norway and Minnesota have “flattened” the curve (note that the scale of the graph is exponential, chosen because this best allows comparisons of growth of this type). That is, Norway has gone through 12 doublings in numbers so far, whereas Minnesota has gone through nine. 

The good news is that in both cases, the doublings are further apart, starting at nearly daily (because of hidden cases being recognized) and now spread to a nine-day interval for Norway and six days for Minnesota. The graph implies that Minnesota has done much better than Norway in total cases, but is that really true? Probably not: Norway has run more than 100,000 tests for the virus, and Minnesota 25,000. Most telling: the death rate in Minnesota is 2.8% of confirmed cases, whereas Norway is 1.1%, the difference in rates likely a reflection of the differences in testing.

So, yes, both Norway and Minnesota are taking steps to meet the crisis, and they are having some effect. But this is still early days. 

By the way, this is the answer to the riddle: if the pond is half-full on Saturday, it will be all the way full on Sunday. It is obvious that everything we do matters. 

This article originally appeared in the April 17, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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John Erik Stacy

John Erik Stacy grew up in Wayzata, Minn., and has now returned there after over 30 years divided between Oslo and Seattle. He studied Biology at the University of Oslo and worked there several years leading the DNA laboratory for Systematics and Ecology. He also worked as a senior scientist and team leader for a biotech startup at the Oslo Research Park, where he developed automated systems in antibody discovery. He continues to hold investments and consult for companies at the Research Park and travels frequently to Oslo.