The faster-spreading variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 hasn't been found yet in Minnesota, but public health experts are on the hunt because of its potential to increase infections and threaten the state's latest attempted return to normalcy.

State Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said mask-wearing and social distancing is critical anyway as Minnesota reopens bars and restaurants at 50% capacity on Monday, but has added importance because the B.1.1.7 viral variant has been found in several states. Texas reported its first such case on Thursday.

"We're going to keep a very, very close eye on this, as we always do," she said, "but these next weeks in particular are very critical to see if this graduated, and gradual, reopening strategy can sustain through what we think are some difficult months to come."

Minnesota's public health lab is testing samples from local COVID-19 cases but has found no evidence of the genetic variant, which was discovered in southern England late last year. One study in that country estimated that it was 56% more contagious.

The state lab has conducted genomic sequencing of COVID-19 samples since the start of the pandemic, using viral variations like fingerprints to track how outbreaks connect. Sequencing last year connected infections at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota to cases in Minnesota.

"The SARS-CoV-2 viruses circulating in MN show a pattern of diversity that is similar to what's seen across the US," said Sara Vetter, state public health lab director, in an e-mail. "Our sequencing shows it wasn't one large outbreak in November caused by one strain, but many, many small outbreaks caused by slightly different strains."

Concerns about a COVID-19 variant come amid otherwise positive news in Minnesota's response to the pandemic. The state reported another 44 deaths and 2,004 diagnosed infections on Thursday, but only 135 people with COVID-19 in intensive care beds in Minnesota hospitals — a steep decline from 399 on Dec. 1.

The number of Minnesotans who received first doses of COVID-19 vaccine increased to 91,174 on Thursday, and health officials remain confident they will have enough doses allocated by month's end to cover the first priority group of health care workers and long-term care residents.

While state numbers in the pandemic now stand at 5,572 deaths and 429,570 infections, COVID-19 activity has declined to the point that Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday dialed back restrictions on the hospitality industry as well as amateur sports, fitness clubs, movie theaters, churches and wedding receptions.

The governor wrote on Thursday to lawmakers that Minnesota can see "a light now at the end of the tunnel," and set conditions for ending the peacetime emergency and his emergency authority over the state's pandemic response. However, he said legislation to maintain a mask mandate and other protections would be needed.

"While the recent trends in the pandemic's trajectory are encouraging thanks to Minnesotans' hard work and sacrifice in recent weeks, we are not yet out of the woods," he wrote.

Infectious disease experts have disagreed on the potential of the viral variant to upset progress. Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy called it a "game-changer," even if it isn't any more lethal than other variants.

"Where it's showing up, cases are increasing pretty rapidly," said Osterholm, who is part of the team advising President-elect Joe Biden on the nation's pandemic response.

The U's Dr. David Boulware remains skeptical. The infectious disease specialist said it is possible that this variant in England simply was circulating among populations such as young adults who weren't protecting themselves. The strains causing the escalating infections in Minnesota this fall would have looked worse than others as well.

"People not social distancing, not wearing masks in public is a bigger problem than [the] B117 variant," he said in an e-mail. "More data are needed, but my level of concern is low."

Public health officials all agreed the lingering threat of COVID-19, regardless of the viral mutations, underscored the urgent need for more vaccinations.

Minnesota has been allocated 396,350 first doses of the two-dose Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, but state infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann said that includes doses that have been ordered and haven't arrived yet. An estimated 288,000 doses are actually in the state.

Ehresmann said there also is a lag of a couple of days in reporting and verifying vaccinations. The unverified number is around 120,000, which is nearly a third higher than the reported total.

"Vaccine is not sitting anywhere in Minnesota," she said. "It's constantly moving and it takes time for the whole process to happen ... Shots are going into arms."

Minnesota followed recommendations from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices to prioritize limited initial doses for health care worker at greater risk of viral exposure and long-term care residents at greater risk of severe COVID-19 due to their ages and underlying health conditions.

Vaccinations for the next priority group of people 75 and older, and workers in key front-line industries, should start later this month or in early February. Broad public vaccination isn't expected until late winter or early spring.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744