Potential COVID-19 exposures in child-care settings have increased over the past month in Minnesota along with coronavirus infections involving a fast-spreading delta variant.

An average 120 child-care related infections have been identified per week for the last four weeks, according to a weekly state pandemic report released Thursday. Roughly 75% of the infections were in children over that time frame — a reversal from last fall when most of the cases involved staff.

While children are at far lower risk of severe COVID-19 illness, the number of exposures is concerning for health officials because people 11 and younger aren't eligible for vaccination and remain at risk for getting infected and spreading the virus to others who are more vulnerable.

The increase started at the height of summer camp season in the last week of July, said Dr. Beth Thielen, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at M Health Fairview. "That was really before things even started to spiral in Minnesota."

Potential exposures are defined as people who attend a child-care facility while infectious with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus or who test positive and attend a facility that had another positive case within 28 days. Facilities include summer camps and child-care centers, but not in-home child-care operations.

Potential exposures have only slightly increased in K-12 facilities and colleges before the fall start of school.

The increase in child-care exposures tracks with the emergence of a delta variant of the coronavirus that is responsible for an estimated 95% of new infections in Minnesota. The state on Thursday reported eight COVID-19 deaths and 1,355 new infections, raising Minnesota's totals in the pandemic to 7,750 deaths and 631,858 infections.

Seven of the newly reported deaths involved senior citizens, who make up 88% of Minnesota's total COVID-19 deaths. The eighth COVID-19 fatality involved a Hennepin County resident in the 55 to 59 age range.

Health officials have urged vaccination to reduce the spread of the coronavirus and prevent severe illnesses and hospitalizations. Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis was part of a national group that published results Wednesday showing that people still had strong protection against hospitalization 24 weeks after receiving the two-dose Moderna or Pfizer vaccines.

Dr. Heidi Erickson, a critical care physician at HCMC who co-authored the study, said she is urging all unvaccinated people to seek shots if they are eligible for them.

"As a physician who takes care of these patients, and who has lost patients in their 30s and 40s to this disease, it's an existential sort of crisis now of seeing unnecessary deaths and suffering from an illness that is preventable," she said.

More than 3.2 million Minnesotans 12 and older have received at least a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine, or 69.4% of the eligible population.

COVID-19 hospitalizations in Minnesota increased to 473 on Wednesday, up from 90 in late July.

The hospitalization number remains considerably lower than Minnesota's peaks during prior waves of 699 in April and 1,864 last November. Alabama is reporting more than 2,700 people hospitalized with COVID-19 right now and Missouri more than 2,300.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744