Minnesota’s mixed COVID-19 statistics offer little guidance on the direction of the pandemic — other than to say the coronavirus isn’t going away.
New infections remained steady in Minnesota at an average of 1,402 a day during the week ending July 22, according to Thursday’s state situation update, but viral levels in waters waste from the Twin Cities fell by 8% last week.
Severe levels of COVID-19 haven’t gotten worse, but they haven’t gotten better either. Tuesday’s 417 COVID-19-related hospitalizations, including 36 involving intensive care, reflect a stagnant number of infected patients this summer. Over the past week, Minnesota has confirmed another 46 deaths from COVID-19 – an average of about six per day, which is a slight increase this month, but is below the peak of 39 per day in last winter.
High levels of immunity likely play a protective role against severe disease, but the dominant coronavirus subvariant BA.5 shows a unique ability to infect people even if they have had recent cases of COVID-19 or vaccinations.
Adults who had received initial vaccines plus booster doses accounted for 69% of identified infections in Minnesota during the first week of July, and seven of nine COVID-19 deaths this week – all among the elderly. However, the risk rate remained three times higher among unvaccinated seniors, who accounted for two of the deaths this week despite making up less than 7% of Minnesota’s 65-and-over population.
“This variant indeed evades vaccine-induced and disease-induced immunity further, leading to additional transmission risk, ever-newer variants and lengthy COVID complications,” said Dr. Gregory Poland, group leader. Mayo Clinic vaccine researcher who participated in a COVID-19 strategy session at the White House earlier this week. “The extremely low indoor masking rate (and) the low vaccination rates ensure that we will continue to have wave after wave of new variants as the most likely scenario.”
The St. Paul Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant already follows BA.2.75, which has been designated as a “variant of interest” by the World Health Organization after it appeared in several countries. Some variants with this designation have caused new waves of COVID-19 while others have fizzled out.
The new variant did not show up in the latest Twin Cities sampling, which found BA.5 to be 70% of viral load last week. Sewage sampling is considered a more stable tool for tracking COVID-19 activity than testing, due to the growing popularity this year of rapid home antigen tests that are not made public.
The University of Minnesota’s dashboard of sewage sampling in the rest of the state also offered a mixed picture of COVID-19 activity. Viral loads have declined in southern Minnesota after spikes over the past month, but have remained stable in central regions and increased in the northeast.
Levels of COVID-19 were highest in Minnesota and northern states in the spring, but then increased in the southern and western United States this summer. The lingering question is whether COVID-19 will rebound with a new wave this fall as Minnesota prepares for next month’s State Fair followed by the start of the school year.
Carnegie Mellon University’s COVIDcast tracking found that the rate of COVID-19 antigen test positivity jumped in Minnesota after Independence Day weekend – likely after social gatherings were allowed the virus to spread. However, positive tests have since declined in Minnesota and are back below the national rate.
Mayo Clinic forecast predicts little change in Minnesota’s COVID-19 cases over next two weeks, while collaborative COVID-19 Ensemble from multiple national models suggests little change in hospitalizations, but possibly a slight increase in deaths.
The severe delta variant last winter had altered the risk profile of COVID-19 somewhat, with only 70% of deaths among the most vulnerable older adults and 30% among largely unvaccinated young adults. Deaths have declined in all age groups in Minnesota since the winter, but more than 90% this summer have been among seniors.
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