A COVID-19 outbreak at a wrestling tournament held in South Dakota drew warnings Monday from Minnesota health authorities, who have been concerned about youth sports fueling an increase in pandemic activity and hospitalizations.

Positive infections have been found in 16 of the 2,000 wrestlers plus spectators from Minnesota who were in Sioux Falls for a state meet March 31-April 3 held by the Northland Youth Wrestling Association (NYWA).

State health officials urged participants to seek testing and monitor for symptoms — because wrestling involves close contact that raises the risk for viral transmission and because of reports of poor mask-wearing and social distancing practices at the event.

"We know that Minnesotans desperately want to get back to doing the things we all love," said Dr. Ruth Lynfield, state epidemiologist. "However, COVID-19 is spreading across Minnesota at a high rate. We ask Minnesotans to please be patient and to continue to use prevention measures, and not to gather in large groups of people, particularly indoors, and please continue to wear masks and physically distance."

The meet involved 64 teams from 52 Minnesota counties. It was moved from Rochester to Sioux Falls because of the level of COVID-19 mitigation requirements for sporting events in Minnesota.

"NYWA is confident that everyone is aware of the risk of COVID-19 and expect that everyone will make their own determination if this is something he or she is comfortable attending," the organizers said in a Facebook post in February.

TV coverage showed unmasked athletes and spectators packed tightly together during the tournament. A mask mandate in Sioux Falls expired March 13, and the arena encouraged masks and social distancing but did not require them.

While COVID-19 vaccine has been provided to 47% of Minnesotans — including 84% of senior citizens at greatest risk for severe illness and death — health officials remain concerned about the rapid spread of infections among younger age groups.

COVID-19 hospitalizations have tripled from 210 on March 6 to 651 on Sunday — reaching the highest level since early January.

Fewer hospitalized patients are dying when compared with the COVID-19 waves last year, probably because vaccination progress this year is preventing those most at risk from suffering infections, said Dr. George Morris, COVID-19 incident commander for St. Cloud-based CentraCare. However, the length of stay is increasing and creating more pressure on hospital capacity because younger patients are fighting through levels of illness that killed older patients, Morris said.

"They have a little more healthy reserve to draw on," Morris said. "So when COVID hits them, it's just knocking them down. But it's knocking them down for a long time."

Minnesota on Monday reported two more COVID-19 deaths and 1,994 newly diagnosed infections with the novel coronavirus that causes the respiratory disease — bringing its totals in the pandemic to 6,959 deaths and 544,046 known infections.

The state also reported that 2,084,627 people had received COVID-19 vaccine and 1,420,328 of them have completed the one- or two-dose series.

The state this year has identified 274 sports-related outbreaks in 2021 — which it defines as at least two confirmed infections among participants on a single team who have no other possible transmissions sources in common.

While children rarely suffer severe COVID-19 symptoms, they can pass the virus to parents or other older adults who are more vulnerable, said Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

That is especially true now that a more infectious B.1.1.7 variant of the coronavirus is believed to be the cause of as many as 60% of new infections in Minnesota. That variant was first identified in England and spread quickly among children and younger adults in Europe, Osterholm said.

"There are more severely ill people in younger ages," he said. "This is exactly what B.1.1.7 did in Europe."

State health officials advised COVID-19 testing once a week — and three days before matches or games — for competitive athletes in Minnesota following the discovery of a variant-driven cluster of infections in suburban Carver County in early March.

Morris participated in a mass vaccination event on Monday at a mosque in St. Cloud, where as many as 800 people could receive vaccine in preparation for Ramadan. Noting that St. Cloud Hospital has 50 COVID-19 patients, he urged people to seek vaccine and to continue to take steps to reduce the spread of the virus.

"We don't expect it to be like a November-December surge," he said. "I don't expect to see 170 patients in our hospital, but 50 is still awful and it's still taxing our resources."

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744