The recent increase in COVID-19 infections means more patients in Minnesota's hospitals because of coronavirus complications.

For five of the past six days, the number of COVID-19 patients has topped 100, with 116 getting care on Tuesday.

It is another sign, along with accelerating new case counts and a rising test positivity rate, that COVID-19 is spreading more widely again in the state.

Although Minnesota is still far below the most recent peak of 699 patients reached in mid-April, the rapid spread of the COVID-19 delta variant has hospital officials anticipating care for more, mostly unvaccinated, patients.

The hospital system typically sees increases in COVID-19 patients two weeks after cases rise because it can take time for serious complications to develop after the initial infection.

"Definitely there is an uptick," said Dr. Deepti Pandita, an internal medicine specialist at Hennepin Healthcare in Minneapolis. "Our census related to COVID that had dropped to almost zero at one time is now climbing up again."

The highly infectious delta variant of the coronavirus has become the dominant strain in Minnesota, accounting for  75% of new infections.

With 47% of state residents not fully vaccinated, public health officials are concerned that the variant could fuel another surge in cases.

Sixteen months into the pandemic, Minnesota hospitals are better prepared to handle COVID-19 patients, with advances in treatments, stockpiles of personal protective equipment and workers who are protected from infection through vaccination.

"The angst is a little bit more controlled at this point," Pandita said.

Vaccination rates vary widely throughout the state, meaning it could be harder for the delta variant to take root in some communities.

"It may go up but I don't know if it is going to be a substantial spike because we have a larger number of protected individuals," said Dr. Abinash Virk, an infectious disease specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. "In terms of volumes it will not be similar to what we had in the winter."

Minnesota health care systems say that most COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated. They are also a younger population than before because 89% of those older than 64 are fully vaccinated.

At Allina Health, the 18-34 age group accounted for 23% of COVID-19 admissions in July, up from 8% in November and December. Back then, children were 0.5% of admissions, but that has gone up to 2.4%, although that is the smallest percentage overall.

M Health Fairview says that almost all of its COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated. It is also seeing patients not normally seen in the summer.

"We are also seeing an increase in respiratory illnesses and other classically winter viruses, which is adding to hospitalizations," media relations manager Aimee Jordan said.

Minnesota health officials announced 340 new COVID-19 infections on Thursday, bringing the state's pandemic total to 609,016. The state's testing positivity rate has been inching upward. It's now at 2%, up from 1.1% in late June. Although increasing, it is still below the caution level of 5%.

Over the last week, 49% of new cases have been among those younger than 35, an age group that has the lowest vaccination rates. Children younger than 12 are not yet eligible for any approved COVID-19 vaccine.

Nearly 10% of the 1,738 new cases reported over the past week have been in people younger than 10.

Not all of those newly infected will become seriously ill. However, a wider spread increases the likelihood that the virus can be passed to those who are more susceptible, including those who are immunocompromised, such as organ transplant recipients, cancer patients and others.

As of Wednesday, 108 were hospitalized for COVID-19, with the number of patients in intensive care increasing slightly, to 27.

"Patients who are coming are sick with COVID and are needing a higher acuity of care such as the ICU," Pandita said.

State health officials announced four more COVID-19 related deaths. There have been 7,648 fatalities since the pandemic was first detected in Minnesota.

Another 3,376 first doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered, bringing the total number of first shots to 3.1 million.

Altogether, 68% of Minnesotans 16 and older have gotten a shot.

Glenn Howatt • 612-673-7192