Infections with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 have dropped sharply among pre-K-12 students in Minnesota — ahead of state efforts to ramp up vaccinations in this younger population.

After averaging more than 1,200 new infections in pre-K-12 students per week for much of April — the worst stretch in the entire pandemic — the state reported only 858 such infections in the week ending May 8. The student data was released Thursday in the Minnesota Department of Health's latest weekly COVID-19 report.

While the number of student infections remains well above average, the recent decline matches with other COVID-19 trends indicating that Minnesota is on the downside of a third pandemic wave. Hospitalizations for COVID-19 in Minnesota declined from a peak of 699 on April 14 to 412 on Wednesday, and the positivity rate for recent COVID-19 diagnostic testing in the state dropped to 4.8% — below the state's caution threshold of 5%.

The state has reported a total of 7,333 COVID-19 deaths in the pandemic and 597,052 infections with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that were verified through testing. The totals include eight deaths and 874 infections reported Thursday.

The recent surge in infections among children and teenagers was concerning to state health officials, because they aren't as likely to suffer severe COVID-19 illness but can spread the virus to others who are more vulnerable. An outbreak of a more infectious B.1.1.7 variant of the coronavirus centered largely on youth sports activities in suburban Carver County and surrounding communities.

Now that vaccination levels have increased in some of the state's most vulnerable populations — with nearly 89% of senior citizens receiving at least a first dose — health officials hope more teens and young adults will seek shots. The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson versions of COVID-19 vaccine remain available only to people 18 and older, but the age eligibility for the Pfizer version dropped from 16 to 12 last week.

Gov. Tim Walz and state leaders held a promotional event on Wednesday to encourage the newly eligible population of teenagers to get vaccinated. The age group will be prioritized for vaccine at the state site at the Mall of America through Saturday.

"We took a big step toward normal last week," said Walz, referring to the lifting of a statewide indoor mask-wearing mandate, "but a safe and fun summer is possible only if everyone who can be protected is protected."

Roughly 29,000 people 12 to 15 have received vaccine in the past week. The state reported that 62.4% of Minnesotans 16 and older — more than 2.7 million people — have received at least a first dose of vaccine.

The state vaccine numbers include doses administered to Minnesotans in North Dakota and Wisconsin, but not in other states unless individuals take steps to get their shots registered through their providers with the state's immunization tracking system. The state's vaccine numbers received a boost Thursday when North Dakota reported a batch of roughly 24,000 Minnesotans who had received their shots across the border.

Evidence of vaccine effectiveness has emerged in the Minnesota data, including a lack of increase in infections among pre-K-12 educators at a time when student infections were surging. Teachers were prioritized earlier this winter for vaccine along with senior citizens, health care workers and long-term care residents. There were 114 infections among pre-K-12 educators and staff in the week ending May 8, well below the 965 such infections reported during a peak week in November.

Health officials said increased vaccination will prevent the development of new variants of SARS-CoV-2, some of which could be more infectious or cause higher levels of severe illness. Three-fourths of Minnesota's infections are linked to B.1.1.7.

State officials are using genomic sequencing in a sampling of positive infections to track other variants such as P.1, first identified in Brazil, and B.1.351, first identified in South Africa. Those two variants have been found in 430 infections in Minnesota.

Roughly 15% of people identified with the South African variant have been hospitalized, compared with 6% of people infected with the B.1.1.7 variant first found in England.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744