A more infectious variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is "widespread" in Minnesota, with a recent batch of genomic sequencing tests from one lab finding it in more than half of samples.
State health officials said the emergence of the B.1.1.7 variant underscores the need for mask-wearing, social distancing and vaccination, but it doesn't necessarily mean there will be renewed restrictions on schools, businesses or social gatherings.
While 5% of variant-driven COVID-19 cases are resulting in hospitalizations, the hope is that there will be fewer severe outcomes and deaths because many of the most vulnerable Minnesotans have been vaccinated, state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said.
"We think we are seeing early signs … that the proportion of cases that are in the ICU or that result in deaths is lower than in prior surges," she said.
Genomic sequencing of a sampling of COVID-19 cases in Minnesota has found 479 infections with the B.1.1.7 variant that was identified in England and has resulted in new pandemic waves throughout Europe. The infections include an outbreak centered on youth sports in Carver County.
Of cases with identified transmission sources, only 15% involved travel, meaning the virus is "widespread" and passing from person to person in Minnesota, said Dr. Ruth Lynfield, state epidemiologist.
"We know these variants are spreading and we know how to slow them down," she said. "We have been at this for many months and we're all excited to get to the end. … Now is the time to buckle down and finish the job we all started."
Minnesota reported progress in its race to vaccinate ahead of variant growth. As of Tuesday, 1,437,931 people in Minnesota had received COVID-19 vaccine, and 854,827 people had completed the series by receiving two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer versions or a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson version.
Based on state population estimates, more than 40% of people 16 and older who are eligible to receive vaccine in Minnesota have received at least a first dose. Nearly 80% of senior citizens have received vaccine — a key priority group that has suffered 89% of the state's COVID-19 6,789 deaths — along with at least 65% of K-12 educators and child-care providers.
The state on Tuesday reported seven more deaths, including only the sixth COVID-19 fatality in someone 24 or younger. The Anoka County resident had underlying health conditions that exacerbated the infection.
The state also reported 870 more diagnosed infections, bringing its overall case count to 507,231, and a 4.5% positivity rate of diagnostic testing that is inching closer to a warning threshold of 5%.
Other variants of concern include one that emerged in South Africa and has since been detected in six Minnesotans — all who either traveled to Africa or had been in contact with such travelers. The state has only found two infections of a concerning variant first found in Brazil, but 108 infections involving two recently classified California variants that might have some resistance to COVID-19 vaccines and therapies.
"When you have as many people infected as we have with COVID-19, there are a lot of opportunities for mutations to happen," Lynfield said. "Most mutations don't have much impact, but some can make a virus more transmissible and/or more likely to cause severe illness."
Minnesota hospitals on Monday reported 87 COVID-19 patients being treated in intensive care units — that is well below the peak of 399 on Dec. 1 but the highest daily total since Jan. 31.
A state review of 11,116 COVID-19 hospitalizations over the past year has found that 10% died, but that this rate varied by age from 22% of patients 75 or older down to 2% of patients ages 18 to 49. Underlying health problems were found in 77% of those admitted patients — and that 34% had obesity and 47% hypertension. The median length of stay was five days, with 23% of the hospitalized patients needing intensive care and 13% needing placement on a ventilator.
Malcolm said vaccination of vulnerable individuals should improve outcomes even if COVID-19 continues to spread. Minnesota has seen brief upticks before — following Thanksgiving and Christmas — and some health officials expect a similar or larger increase following spring break travels.
Roughly 3.5 million people are eligible for vaccine in Minnesota, which has prioritized seniors, health care workers, educators, long-term care residents and non-elderly adults with qualifying health conditions or high-risk occupations.
Medical providers were advised to focus first on select conditions such as Down syndrome that presented the highest risk of COVID-19 complications before moving to patients with more common chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.
The list of occupations making people eligible for vaccination includes first responders, food processing workers, food servers, judicial workers, postal workers, airport staff and transit workers.
Doctors and clinics have focused on patients with underlying health conditions, because they have medical records to document their need and eligibility. County and state vaccine events have asked qualified workers to bring documentation of employment with them but don't require these records.
Gov. Tim Walz remains in quarantine through Thursday following contact with a staffer who tested positive for COVID-19. The governor is expected as early as this week to announce the next expansion of vaccine eligibility — perhaps to all adults 50 or older, or to a broader range of workers or people with underlying health conditions.
Concerns about variants come even as the state is relaxing COVID-19 restrictions. Earlier this month, restaurants and bars were allowed to expand their indoor capacity while numerical caps on religious gatherings were lifted. Fully vaccinated people who received their shots at least 14 days earlier can visit one another indoors without masks or social distancing.
Large events such as concerts and Minnesota Twins games will be allowed at limited capacity next month.
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744