Minnesota saw more than 275,000 new COVID-19 cases in January, the highest monthly total for the pandemic.
Fueled by the highly infectious omicron variant, the state surpassed the monthly record of 180,000 cases set in November 2020 before COVID-19 vaccines were introduced.
But omicron has not set records for hospitalizations and deaths, due in part to Minnesota's COVID-19 vaccination rate of 64.7%.
Preliminary data for January show that about 5,300 patients were admitted to Minnesota hospitals for COVID-19 complications, down from November 2020's peak of nearly 7,000.
As some studies have indicated, omicron has not caused as many serious complications, with 10% of January's hospitalizations needing intensive care, while throughout the pandemic nearly 1 out of every 5 patients were in the ICU.
Even with the high number of infections, 659 COVID-19 deaths were reported last month, down 37% from the December total. Over the coming days and weeks, more cases, deaths and hospitalizations for January will continue to be reported to the Health Department.
As of Monday, there were 1,370 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, including 192 in intensive care. Patients with other medical conditions are also keeping hospitals busy, with 95% of adult ICU beds occupied along with 88% of pediatric ICU beds.
"Omicron still has made a lot of people sick," said Carol Koeppel-Olsen, vice president of patient care services at Abbott Northwestern Hospital.
A team of 25 health care workers from the U.S. Department of Defense arrived over the weekend at the hospital, which has allowed the Minneapolis medical center to open more medical-surgical beds for patients,
Abbott Northwestern is caring for nearly 90 COVID-19 patients, off from its peak of 110.
The federal team includes nurses, doctors, medics, pharmacy technicians and respiratory therapists from three Army hospitals across the country, said Col. Robert Corson, the officer in charge. The Department of Defense teams, two of which previously deployed to CentraCare in St. Cloud and HCMC in Minneapolis, typically stay for 30 or 60 days, Corson said.
For now, the team at Abbott Northwestern is expected to stay through March 2.
"COVID's been a crisis for two-and-a-half years, so we've gotten used to it, honestly," Koeppel-Olsen said. Hospital workers are "tired," she said, and while "they would tell you it is a crisis some days — we just feel like this is what we do now, honestly. … We care for people who need COVID care. We care for everybody else."
Kathy Parsons, the vice president of population health at CentraCare, said a federal team arrived at St. Cloud Hospital in late November when the state's largest regional hospitals were so full that they couldn't take transfers of patients with complex needs from smaller medical centers across greater Minnesota.
"They came to us at a time when we very much needed them most — they were kind of the darkest of our days, trying to get through," Parsons said.
The problem with transfers has eased, Parsons said. Outlying hospitals are better able to care for the complex patients, she said, while larger medical centers now have more room to take them.
Parsons remains cautious about what comes next with the virus. "We've learned now, just when we think we've rounded a corner, we discover there's another curve ahead — that we hope is not there."
Even if demand for COVID care is easing "there's a lot of pent-up need for lots of other care that we all kind of have to catch up on'' before they turn into bigger problems.
For now, all the leading indicators for pandemic activity in Minnesota — whether it's COVID cases, the statewide positivity rate or patients in hospitals and intensive care — are trending favorably, said Dr. Dan Hoody, the interim chief medical officer at Hennepin Healthcare.
Hospitals aren't out of the woods, Hoody said, because staff outages remain higher than they were in previous surges. Even so, he said it was "reassuring to think that in the coming weeks — with both the downstream impact on acute care from all these favorable leading indicators coming to fruition, as well as more staff coming back into the ranks — that we should expect patient flow and acute care access to continue to improve."
The Minnesota Department of Health on Tuesday reported 21,360 cases and 46 additional deaths, representing reports made to the health agency Friday through Sunday, as well as some backlogged cases.
The state's testing positivity rate has fallen to 21%, still higher than the 15.3% seen during the fall 2020 surge.
Health officials said that January had the top 10 highest daily reports of new cases for the pandemic and by the third week of last month there was a backlog of more than 45,000 cases because agency employees could not keep up with the high volume.
Altogether, Minnesota has reported 1.3 million COVID-19 infections and 11,457 fatalities.
Nearly 3.6 million Minnesotans have completed the COVID-19 vaccine series and 2 million have received booster shots. But the pace of vaccinations continues to slow, with 69,000 shots administered last week, down 28% from the previous week.
Staff writer Christopher Snowbeck contributed to this report.