Fewer Minnesotans sought COVID-19 testing as they finished shopping and meal preparations during the week before Christmas.
That's a 28% decrease from the week that preceded Thanksgiving, which was a time when Minnesota was adding new cases at record rates.
"We were super busy before Thanksgiving and then everything just kind of fell off a cliff," said Heather Dawson, vice president of laboratory services at Minneapolis-based Allina Health.
"Our positivity rate dropped at the same time, so it is hard to tell if it is fewer people getting tested or fewer people feeling ill," she said.
Still, 1.2 million test results were reported to the Minnesota Department of Health so far in December, which detected nearly 70,000 new cases.
November saw 177,000 new cases from 1.4 million tests.
Health care officials hope that the need for more testing will not increase due to more illness as they watch for signs of a more infectious coronavirus strain that was first reported in the United Kingdom.
"It is not leading to increased severity of illness or increased mortality but greater increase of spread," said Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm. "As new variants will occur, we will be able to spot them and we will be on the lookout for them."
At this point, there is no evidence that the two COVID-19 vaccines being used in Minnesota would be less effective against the recent mutation of the virus.
"We will be watching what this means for vaccination," said state Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann. "At this point we feel that the vaccine will be effective for this virus."
Testing capacity in Minnesota remains robust, according to state officials.
"We do keep reiterating that testing is out there," Malcolm said. "It remains very important that people get tested when they clearly have a need to do so."
That's especially the case for anyone who traveled or attended large holiday gatherings. Public health officials recommend waiting a few days before getting tested after a possible exposure so that the test has a better chance of picking up signs of infection.
Most of the state's "barrier free" community testing sites that closed for the Christmas break have returned to normal hours, although they will close Thursday and Friday for New Year's Eve and Day.
If Christmas gatherings do spark a surge in new cases, it will take several weeks for it to show up in reports of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
In the near term, the daily COVID-19 numbers will be skewed by closure of some testing sites and delayed reporting over the holiday break.
The Health Department on Monday announced 1,087 additional cases on a volume of 13,035 tests, the lowest number seen in nearly two months.
Thirteen more Minnesotans have lost their lives to COVID-19, including seven who were residents of long-term care facilities.
The pandemic has caused 5,160 deaths in Minnesota along with 410,138 known infections.
Nearly 30% of Minnesota's pandemic deaths have come in December after the surge of new cases from a month earlier.
Bloomington-based HealthPartners said it was seeing test positivity rates nearing 16% in the week of Nov. 15, when it collected over 19,000 samples, its highest week ever.
Last week, HealthPartners did 7,264 tests, yielding a positivity rate of 8.4%.
Dawson at Allina said its team had seen similar decreases, and she hopes they will continue.
"We are all just crossing our fingers that maybe it is real," she said.
At this time of year, health systems are typically watching for an increase in influenza cases after the holiday season.
"January is a telling month," Dawson said. "Sometimes we will have a flu surge after the new year."
So far flu has not been seen at high levels in most states, possibly due to decreased international travel and COVID-19 safety precautions, which also help limit the spread of seasonal influenza.
Minnesota is reporting only 16 flu-related hospitalizations this season, along with three school outbreaks and two long-term care outbreaks, numbers that trail previous years.
About 21% of the state's hospital beds are filled by COVID-19 patients, with 878 total admissions due to complications from the coronavirus. Of those, 203 patients are in intensive care, down from 399 on Dec. 1, which was the peak, according to the state's online dashboard.
Altogether, 87% of the state's 1,212 ICU beds are occupied due to COVID-19 or recovery from emergencies, surgeries and other medical conditions.
Most people who require hospital-level care have underlying health conditions, including heart, lung and kidney disease.
For others, COVID-19 infection causes mild or no symptoms, although they can transmit the virus to others.
Since the pandemic began, 391,248 cases are considered to be no longer infectious and don't need to isolate.
The Health Department on Monday said it had issued notices of license suspension and cease-and-desist orders against two businesses for violating prohibitions against on-premises customer service.
Long Pine Store in Pine River was cited for serving beverages, while Jamieson's on Main in Oslo was cited for serving food.
Glenn Howatt • 612-673-7192