COVID-19's rapid retreat continued on Wednesday in Minnesota, where reported case and hospitalization rates fell at or below the state's caution thresholds for the first time since April 2020.

The rate of infections with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has been one of five key barometers that Minnesota has used to assess the pandemic. At its worst last fall, the pandemic caused 125 reported infections per 100,000 people per day in Minnesota. The rate rose as high as 39 in the latest spring wave, but has dropped with increased COVID-19 vaccination progress to 4.3 — below the state's high risk threshold of 10 as well as its caution threshold of 5.

Gov. Tim Walz noted the progress on Tuesday as he encouraged more Minnesotans to seek COVID-19 vaccine and highlighted a new pop-up vaccination site for travelers at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Nearly 3 million people in Minnesota have received at least a first dose, but progress toward the state goal of providing COVID-19 vaccine to 70% of people 16 and older by July 1 has slowed. The current rate is 65.4% in that age group.

"Get this vaccine," Walz said. "We'll bring it to you. We'll make it easy. Let's push that number above 70% ... and let's get back to normal."

Minnesota on Wednesday reported eight COVID-19 deaths and 150 more coronavirus infections, raising its totals in the pandemic to 7,477 deaths and 603,144 infections. Hospitalizations for COVID-19 in the state dropped below 200 — for the first time since spring 2020 — to 192.

A spring wave of COVID-19 activity hit Minnesota particularly hard, because of the spread of a more infectious B.1.1.7 variant of the coronavirus that now makes up almost 80% of new infections in the state.

The subsequent decline has been rapid in Minnesota compared with other states, according to the latest weekly federal COVID-19 State Profile Report released on Tuesday. Minnesota had one of the highest case rates in the nation for much of March and April, but had the 22nd lowest case rate in the latest report, which downgraded the state's viral transmission risks from substantial to moderate.

Minnesota set its 70% vaccination goal for people 16 and older just before the federal government lowered the eligibility age for the Pfizer version of COVID-19 vaccine from 16 to 12. Minnesota's total of nearly 3 million people 12 and older who have received COVID-19 vaccine includes nearly 2.7 million people who have completed the one- or two-dose series.

Walz on Tuesday said Minnesota is close to becoming the 14th state to meet a separate goal from President Joe Biden of providing vaccine to at least 70% of people 18 and older by July 4.

Minnesota's five pandemic barometers include the COVID-19 hospitalization rate, which has dropped to the state caution threshold, and the positivity rate of diagnostic testing, which at 2.3% is below the state's 5% caution threshold.

Minnesota once considered the rate of infections from unknown sources as a key indicator of its ability to use contact tracing to identify viral exposures and protect people at risk. However, the rate of unknown community transmissions has ballooned to 49%, and the metric is no longer as relevant to state health officials.

"Not everyone we reach is willing to share freely where they may have been exposed or activities they are engaged in," said Kris Ehresmann, state infectious disease director. "We have seen a reduction in people's willingness to share complete data as the pandemic has progressed."

Minnesota this week fell to the wrong side of its caution threshold for its rate of COVID-19 testing, which is somewhat expected amid declines in infections and viral activity. However, low testing levels hurt the state's surveillance and ability to detect any new infection waves early.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744