Even for a Tuesday, the latest daily COVID-19 counts of two deaths and 456 diagnosed infections reflected continued declines in pandemic activity in Minnesota.

Case counts have been lower on Tuesdays since the start of the pandemic, reflecting reduced testing and reporting on weekends. Still, this Tuesday's report is the lowest since Sept. 15 in the number of newly diagnosed infections with the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The additions bring Minnesota's toll in the pandemic to 6,380 COVID-19 deaths and 474,621 diagnosed infections.

The trends are encouraging ahead of looming decisions by Gov. Tim Walz and Minnesota leaders on whether to continue business capacity restrictions to reduce viral spread, and the reopening of more schools to in-person classes.

The positivity rate of diagnostic testing has dropped to 3.8% in Minnesota, below the caution threshold of 5% that suggests uncontrolled spread of the virus. The number of Minnesota hospital intensive care beds filled with COVID-19 patients is down to 57, well below the peak of 399 on Dec. 1.

However, health officials have cautioned that the progress could be upset by new, more infectious variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that are emerging in the United States.

State infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann on Tuesday said that Minnesota has encountered 40 COVID-19 cases involving the B.1.1.7 variant first found in the United Kingdom. Minnesota also has seen two of only three verified infections in the U.S. so far with the P.1 variant first identified in Brazil, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ehresmann said mask-wearing in public and social distancing will remain critical protections against any resurgence of the pandemic.

"Its really important that we celebrate where we are at, but we do not move too quickly" in scaling back any mitigation measures, she said. "We want to make sure we are not giving a foothold to these variants."

The state on Tuesday reported that 686,210 people in Minnesota have received at least the first of two doses of COVID-19 vaccine, and that 240,027 of them have completed the series. The Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines showed in clinical trials that they were 95% protective when provided in two doses and on schedule.

Ehresmann said the federal government is pledging more doses to states next week to increase vaccinations. However, some of that is "on paper" because vials of Pfizer vaccine are now officially considered to contain six doses rather than five. Minnesota providers had been routinely extracting sixth doses out of those vials since the vaccine was first approved for use in mid-December.

She also noted that winter storms in the southern U.S. are disrupting vaccine delivery across the country, which could result in some vaccination appointments being delayed or rescheduled.

The two deaths reported Tuesday were residents of Anoka and Ramsey counties in their 70s, but neither lived in long-term care facilities. Health officials said there is preliminary evidence that vaccination has reduced outbreaks and severe infections among long-term care residents who have suffered 63% of Minnesota's COVID-19 deaths.

State Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm on Tuesday said the 15 COVID-19 cases in nursing homes in the last week was the lowest total since March.

"Our goal is absolutely to get the number of cases, hospitalizations and certainly deaths due to COVID-19 down to zero," she said, "and we see evidence that the vaccines are helping bring those numbers even further below where we have been."

A mask mandate for indoor public places and social distancing guidelines remain in effect in Minnesota, with the secondary benefit of helping to suppress seasonal influenza. The latest data, as of Feb. 6, showed only 32 flu-related hospitalizations in Minnesota; in a typical flu season, that number would already be above 1,000.

A group of surveillance clinics in Minnesota reported that 0.5% of patients sought care for flu-like illness in the week ending Feb. 6. That rate was roughly 4% at this time last year.

One troubling COVID-19 indicator is that a record 43% of recent cases haven't been traced back to known sources in communities. An unknown community transmission rate above 30% is considered a high-risk concern, because it means the virus is spreading beyond the state's ability to track it and contain it.

Ehresmann earlier this month said contact tracers have been interviewing more than 80% of people with diagnosed COVID-19, but "they really don't know where they got it and/or they are unwilling to give us more specific information about their activities." As a result, the measurement has become a less effective tool for assessing pandemic activity in Minnesota, she said.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744