Declines in COVID-19 hospitalizations and Minnesota's reported test positivity rate offered hope Wednesday that a third pandemic wave in the state is peaking.
Both key benchmarks of pandemic activity had been steadily increasing since early March, with the positivity rate rising from 3.4% on March 2 to 7.4% on April 11 before falling back slightly to 7.3%. The 676 COVID-19 cases in Minnesota hospital inpatient beds on Tuesday also tripled the recent low of 210 on March 6. That number declined slightly from 686 on Monday.
State health and hospital officials cautioned that it is too soon to conclude that the worst of the wave is over in this pandemic — which in total has caused 7,044 COVID-19 deaths and 560,450 known infections in Minnesota. That includes 13 deaths and 1,611 infections reported Wednesday.
"Most of the models for us are showing peak at some point in these next one to two weeks with declining need for hospital beds thereafter, which has been our main pinch point," said Dr. Mark Sannes, a leader of the COVID-19 response for Bloomington-based HealthPartners and Regions Hospital in St. Paul. "So I think that there is cause for optimism in that regard. At the same time, that is all dependent upon individual behavior, 15 months into the pandemic."
State Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm urged eligible people 16 and older to seek COVID-19 vaccine, and everyone to continue the basic precautions of mask-wearing and social distancing in public. Between COVID-19 cases and all other patients, Minnesota hospitals have been as full in April as they were during the second pandemic wave in December.
"The focus on getting everybody vaccinated is absolutely critical right now," she said.
The state on Wednesday reported that more than 2.3 million people had at least received a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine and that more than 1.6 million had completed the one- or two-dose series. That means 52.7% of the eligible population has received vaccine and 37.4% have completed the series.
Vaccine providers have reported some slowdown in the filling of appointments, more so in rural areas, but said that doses aren't sitting unused.
HealthPartners this week expanded access to all eligible patients after previously working through higher-risk older and chronically ill populations.
More than 85% of seniors at greater risk of severe COVID-19 have received vaccine in Minnesota, and health officials said that could explain why COVID-19 mortality numbers haven't increased at the same rate as hospitalizations.
Minnesota had the fifth-highest rate of new infections among U.S. states last week and the sixth-highest rate of hospitalizations, but only the 25th-highest rate of deaths, according to the latest White House COVID-19 state report.
"We're seeing the benefits [of vaccine] in that 65 and older group. We'd like to extend that benefit to all of the age groups," said Sannes, noting that the typical COVID-19 hospital admission now is "55 years old, unvaccinated, and has one risk factor, such as obesity or diabetes."
Doctors have reported some severe illnesses in these younger patients. Total COVID-19 hospitalizations in Minnesota on Tuesday included 193 people placed in intensive care due to breathing problems or other complications of their infections. The ICU patients make up more than 28% of the total hospitalizations, a high rate at a time of peak COVID-19 activity.
Health officials remain concerned about the emergence in Minnesota of new, more infectious variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.
Genomic sequencing of a sampling of positive infections indicates that the majority involve a more infectious B.1.1.7 variant that was first found in England and caused widespread viral activity in Europe.
Genomic sequencing also has found 20 infections in Minnesota involving a P.1 variant that was first identified in Brazil and has shown some potential to resist vaccines.
The 20 cases included 11 people likely infected due to travel but at least two people who reported no travel. The other seven either hadn't been interviewed or refused to speak with health officials about their transmission sources.
Staff writer Christopher Snowbeck contributed to this report.