A key barometer of pandemic activity has matched a 2021 high in Minnesota, where the positivity rate of diagnostic testing has increased to 7.6% and indicates broad spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The rising positivity rate is a "double concern" with testing levels also reaching 2021 highs in Minnesota, meaning that more tests are finding more infections, state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said.

"With the amount of virus that's out there and the amount of the population that is not protected by vaccine, there is unfortunately plenty of room for the virus to still do its harm," she said.

The Minnesota Department of Health on Friday also reported 20 more COVID-19 deaths and 3,661 more infections, raising the state's pandemic totals to 8,295 deaths and 735,646 infections.

COVID-19 hospitalizations in Minnesota dropped slightly to 871 on Thursday, but hospitals reported that more than 95% of their intensive care beds and 93% of non-ICU beds were full because of the pandemic and other unrelated medical issues.

Minnesota is above the caution threshold of a 5% test positivity rate but hasn't been above the 10% warning level since December — during the state's most severe pandemic wave and just before COVID-19 vaccines became available. The state also reached a 7.6% rate in April before infection levels declined and prompted Minnesota leaders to withdraw mask mandates and social distancing requirements.

Health officials encourage unvaccinated Minnesotans to seek shots. More than 75% of eligible people 12 and older in Minnesota have received at least first doses of COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which reports a higher vaccination rate because it includes doses provided at federal facilities that aren't tracked by the state.

COVID-19 models by Mayo Clinic and other groups continue to project flat or steady growth in coronavirus infections in October, with the potential for a decline in November.

Minnesota had the eighth-highest rate of new infections among states over the past seven days, according to CDC data, as the pandemic wave that emerged in the South this summer spread to the Upper Midwest this fall.

Malcolm said hospitals and public health leaders are hopeful of a peak in the latest wave but have to plan for the possibility of growth in infections because of the fast-spreading delta variant of the virus.

"This wave has been different from prior waves in that we have not seen the sharp spike up, that exponential growth rate that we saw in some of the other surges," she said. "But it's been this steady, inexorable increase over a long period of time. … We know it's not going to be the same pattern that we've seen before because it's already different."

Differences include more infections in children and young adults with lower vaccination rates. People younger than 29 made up 37% of all infections identified before Aug. 1 in Minnesota but 42% since that time.

State health officials are closely monitoring outbreaks in pre-K-12 schools for signs of viral spread within those buildings and communities. Nearly 4,500 students or school workers who tested positive for COVID-19 were in their school buildings while infectious during a two-week span ending Sept. 25.

The Minnesota Department of Education on Friday unveiled an updated website with links to every school district's COVID-19 response plan this year.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744