Minnesota's COVID-19 positivity rate has fallen below the high-risk threshold of 10% for the first time since December, a sign the omicron variant wave of the pandemic continues to recede.

The last time the state recorded the 9.9% positivity rate it had in the week ending Feb. 9 was Christmas Day. It peaked at nearly 24% in January as omicron spread rapidly but caused a lower rate of severe infections.

"We're at the tail end of this viral blizzard on a global basis," said Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. He added that pandemic conditions should continue to improve in the coming months if no worrisome new variants emerge.

Hospitalizations continued to trend downward this week, from 898 Monday to 808 Wednesday, including 125 people in intensive care.

On Thursday, the state reported another 27 COVID-19 deaths and 1,853 infections.

State health officials said they were encouraged by decreases in new cases and the positivity rate.

"We all hope we are approaching the end of the most disruptive phase of COVID-19 and that the decrease in positivity rate as well as hospitalizations will continue," said a statement from the Minnesota Department of Health.

The department expanded a program this week to provide free at-home rapid tests to Minnesotans. The Health Department is distributing 347,000 more rapid antigen test kits, each of which contains two tests, to local and tribal public health agencies and food shelves. Providers will tell their communities how to pick up the tests.

"Rapid testing is a key tool Minnesotans can use to lower the risk of spreading COVID-19 to their families and their communities," Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said in a statement. "Even as transmission rates go down, it's important that Minnesotans use resources like rapid testing if they feel sick."

Minnesota has reported more than 1.4 million cases and 11,930 COVID-19 deaths during the pandemic.

Back-to-back waves stemming from the fast-spreading delta and omicron variants have kept Minnesotans on edge since July. Hospitals were swamped in early December with the number of open adult ICU beds in the single digits.

Hospitalizations briefly ticked up during the omicron wave, especially in children under 4 who are still ineligible for vaccination, but COVID-19 ICU numbers did not rise.

To date, more than 3.6 million Minnesotans have been fully vaccinated and more than 2.1 million have received booster shots, the Health Department reports.

The Health Department also reiterated Thursday that Minnesotans are not "in the clear" yet because the transmission rate remains somewhat elevated.

"Because the virus will continue to evolve, and immunity that prevents infection does not appear to be life-long with this virus, we need to be prepared for the possibility of future variants and additional waves of COVID-19," the department said.