Hospitalizations for COVID-19 increased to 651 on Sunday in Minnesota, where rural hospitals started to see the same surges over the weekend that Twin Cities hospitals encountered last week.

The total is the highest since early January and includes 161 people who needed intensive care due to breathing problems or other complications of their COVID-19 cases. The state reported the latest hospital figures on Monday along with two more COVID-19 deaths and 1,994 newly diagnosed infections with the novel coronavirus that causes the respiratory disease.

Those additions bring Minnesota's totals in the pandemic to 6,959 COVID-19 deaths and 544,046 known infections.

Health officials remain hopeful that this latest surge of COVID-19 activity won't be as severe as the spring and winter waves last year, because of continued progress in vaccinating high-risk individuals. Hospitals have reported younger patients and fewer deaths compared with those prior waves.

The state on Monday reported that 47% of Minnesota's eligible population of people 16 and older has received COVID-19 vaccine — or 2,084,627 people. Of them, 1,420,328 have completed the one- or two-dose series. In Hennepin County 52% of the eligible population has receive vaccine.

Vaccine is now available to anyone 16 and older, but was initially prioritized for high-risk groups, including senior citizens who have suffered 89% of Minnesota's COVID-19 deaths. At least 84% of Minnesota seniors have received vaccine, and health officials believe that partly explains why the latest increases in infections and hospitalizations hasn't been matched by an increase in deaths.

Gov. Tim Walz issued a statement on Sunday as Minnesota exceeded 2 million people who have received COVID-19 vaccine. He encouraged people to seek shots when available and to sign up on Minnesota's Vaccine Connector, which among other things will make Twin Cities residents in select ZIP codes eligible for a new vaccine clinic at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds that will open Wednesday.

"If everyone gets a shot when they are able," he said, "we will put this pandemic behind us and enjoy the brighter days we know are ahead."

The number of Minnesotans hospitalized with COVID-19 has doubled in the last three weeks and tripled since the state reported a low of 210 on March 6.

The positivity rate of COVID-19 diagnostic testing has increased over the past month as well from 3.5% on March 2 to 6.7%. More infectious variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 now make up the majority of new infections in Minnesota and are fueling the increase in pandemic activity.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744