COVID-19 hospitalizations now exceed 200 in Minnesota, doubling over the last two weeks amid concerns over the coronavirus delta variant and its threat to unvaccinated people.
The highly infectious delta variant now accounts for 85% of all new cases in Minnesota, state health officials say, up from 75% last week.
Its rapid growth over the past month has fueled a resurgence in COVID-19 case growth rates, resulting in new daily infection numbers not seen since May and increasing the chances that those most at risk for serious illness will become infected.
"We are continuing to see a sharp increase in our state," Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said. "The speed of case growth is truly concerning."
The 202 hospitalizations reported Wednesday in Minnesota include 56 people requiring intensive care because of breathing problems or other complications of their coronavirus infections — and represent a sharp increase from the 90 hospitalizations reported July 14.
While more than 3 million people have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in Minnesota, that still leaves a third of the eligible 12-and-older population unprotected.
"The majority of our hospital patients are not vaccinated; that's what we are seeing," said Dr. Carolyn Ogland, chief medical officer of North Memorial Health, which operates hospitals in Robbinsdale and Maple Grove. "It's not 100%, but a very high percent."
Hospitals have been admitting an average of 25 COVID-19 patients each day over the past week.
About 9% of recent COVID-19 cases require hospitalization, Malcolm said, which is double the 4.5% rate seen during the November surge.
The pandemic continues to hit communities of color the hardest. Hospital admissions from areas that are the most vulnerable to COVID-19 complications are up 72% since one month ago, compared with 41% statewide.
"Unfortunately we know from past trends that these disparities in severe illness … translate into mortality inequities as well," Malcolm said.
COVID-19 activity had declined in late spring and early summer in Minnesota, prompting Gov. Tim Walz and state leaders to rescind a public indoor mask mandate and capacity and social distancing restrictions on businesses and social gatherings. Infections have increased since the end of last month, though, with the positivity rate of COVID-19 diagnostic testing rising from 1.1% to 2.8%.
Pandemic levels remain well off their peaks in Minnesota — which in November reported its highest positivity rate of 15.4% and its highest hospitalization count of 1,864 — but hospital and public health officials said an increase in vaccinations is needed to ward off or lessen the next wave.
The state on Wednesday reported another 625 coronavirus infections and four COVID-19 deaths, raising its pandemic totals to 611,458 infections and 7,660 deaths.
High and rising levels of COVID-19 in southern and western states prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday to recommend mask-wearing by vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals in K-12 schools and any U.S. counties with substantial or high viral transmission levels.
As of Wednesday, 13 Minnesota counties had rates of at least 50 infections per 100,000 per week that would trigger the federal mask-wearing advisory, according to the CDC. That number was down from 14 the day before.
Malcolm said state health officials will provide counties with data on their transmission rates.
Smaller counties could see their rates change quickly, making it difficult for health officials to advise them when to wear masks. However, the use of a one-week rate should reduce the counties that "yo-yo" off and on that mask-wearing list, state health spokesman Doug Schultz said.
The share of Minnesotans who always wear masks has declined to 10%, according to survey data published by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. That's down from a high of 79% when the state mandate was in effect. None of the three COVID-19 vaccines is approved for children younger than 12, so public mask-wearing remains more common among parents and smaller children.
Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday commended 14 Black-owned barber shops and salons for taking part in a federal education program in which they will talk to their customers about the importance of vaccination.
Vaccination rates are above 90% among senior citizens, who are at greatest risk of COVID-19 illness or death, but they are lower for younger adults and among younger members of minority groups. The first-dose vaccination rate among Black Minnesotans 12 and older is 52%, compared with the overall rate among all Minnesotans 12 and older of 66.8%.
"The COVID-19 vaccines save lives and every conversation that shares that message matters," Walz said in a statement. "Anyone can be a strong advocate for these vaccines — whether you're a doctor advising patients, a sibling talking to a loved one, or a barber cutting your neighbor's hair."
While some vaccine hesitancy is due to political opposition and anger over the COVID-19 restrictions imposed over the last year, others have waited because of safety or other concerns.
Ogland said caregivers should patiently address such concerns and questions among people who are still digesting the latest scientific information about the vaccines, rather than badgering them into shots when they still have fears. She supported the CDC mask-wearing advice to reduce viral transmission and buy time for vaccine campaigns to work.
"It's a safe and it's a wise move," she said, "while we try to help the country get to a higher vaccination rate."