Unlike previous waves, this one is driven by the more contagious delta variant that sickened tens of thousands, sent thousands to hospitals and killed hundreds. Health officials don’t see a quick or easy fix.
“We have a lot of COVID right now. It’s raining COVID and we need to do everything we can to reduce transmission, ”Dr. Ruth Lynfield, state epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of Health, said last week on a call with reporters.
Unlike past outbreaks, much of the state has been vaccinated against the virus and more young Minnesotans are falling ill. And where in the past flares have seen a rapid rise in infections followed by a possible decline, this time the growth has been an unyielding upward ramp.
About twice as many children get sick in the latest wave than last fall when Minnesota saw its biggest spike in COVID-19 cases. More than half of adolescents are now at least partially vaccinated, but children under 12 are not yet eligible for any of the three vaccines.
In addition, the number of severe cases among unvaccinated residents tends to be younger, around nine out of 10 seniors have been vaccinated.
However, over 2.2 million Minnesotans have yet to be vaccinated, and residents in the 18-49 age group are the most likely not to be vaccinated.
Vaccines aren’t perfect and breakthrough infections are on the rise. Yet over 99% of the 3 million fully vaccinated Minnesotans have not reported a breakthrough infection.
Nevertheless, there have been 18,790 breakthrough cases, 1,095 hospitalizations and 108 deaths of fully vaccinated people. Health officials say almost all vaccinated people with serious infections are older people, and most younger people with breakthrough infections have mild or no symptoms.
Timing could be the key
The fact that the summer wave is now spreading into the fall worries health officials.
Schools are resuming their lessons and more and more activities are taking place indoors as fall approaches. Since the start of the pandemic, more than 415,000 of the state’s nearly 682,000 cases, 19,400 of some 37,000 hospitalizations and 4,820 of the nearly 8,000 deaths have occurred during the fall and winter months. winter.
“When people come together, transmission occurs. A layered approach to prevention is strongly, highly recommended whenever we are in large gatherings, ”said Jan Malcolm, state health commissioner. She noted that more than 150 infections have already been linked to the Minnesota State Fair.
Health officials say multiple layers of coronavirus mitigation include vaccination, wearing masks and social distancing in crowded places, testing when exposed, and staying home when they are. sick.
How is this push different?
So far, this summer’s push has been more of a slow upward progression than past peaks Minnesota experienced earlier in the pandemic. This appears to be almost entirely due to the effectiveness of the three vaccines available in the United States.
Some key differences:
- The peak of new cases in past outbreaks happened around 30 days, and then the numbers started to drop. The current surge continues to grow, slowly, as it nears 60 days.
- It’s the same with hospitalizations. The rate of new hospitalizations peaked after a few weeks in past outbreaks. Hospital beds continue to fill up in this wave.
- Test positivity rates are nowhere near as high as they were before vaccines were widely available.
- Daily deaths are down this time around. The seven-day moving average of this surge has never exceeded 10 so far. Each of the past pushes has done so, with fall 2020 hitting the 70’s.
But that doesn’t mean Minnesota is out of the woods. Reluctance to vaccinate, young people who are not yet eligible for the vaccine and the more contagious delta strain have threatened to push the fourth wave past previous thresholds. And there are no more statewide mandates on masks, trade capacity and assembly sizes to help stem the spread of the virus.
Monitor schools closely
Public schools are one of the biggest concerns for health officials, especially since vaccines have not been approved for children under 12; and that 47 percent of 12-15 year olds and 41 percent of 16-17 year olds are still not vaccinated.
The school has only been open for two weeks and health officials receive hundreds of case reports related to public schools every day.
Unlike last fall, there is no statewide emergency, so districts must decide how best to deal with the pandemic. The approaches vary from mandatory masks, to social distancing and quarantining those who have been exposed to more passive approaches.
The number of school buildings with confirmed outbreaks of five or more cases has increased from six to 26 in just one week.
Vaughan-Steffensrud Elementary School in Chisholm, northern Minnesota has not yet made the state’s list of confirmed outbreaks, but on Thursday leaders announced that students would learn remotely for two weeks due of significant transmission.
The school is located in St. Louis County, where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says community transmission of the coronavirus is high. Almost all of Minnesota’s 87 counties have similar levels of spread of the virus.
“This is exactly the reason for some concerns at this stage of the game. We start the school year at much higher community transmission rates than the previous school year and with more cases in children, ”said Malcolm.
Concerns about hospital capacity
Hospital capacity also remains a concern, particularly in rural areas where options may be more limited.
More than 700 patients were hospitalized last week, including more than 200 in critical condition. They are the most critical patients on record all this year, and overall hospitalizations rival the spring 2021 surge.
The number of hospital patients peaked at more than 1,800 last December during the state’s worst wave.
Hospital capacity is under strain as available beds dwindle in much of the twin cities and in the southeastern state, according to health department data. Hospital officials say it’s not just COVID-19; the pandemic has caused many to postpone care and the number of patients suffering from illnesses such as heart attacks and strokes is almost double what is normally seen.
But the real concern is the availability of the highly trained staff needed to treat critically ill patients. Doctors and nurses are leaving the profession, health officials say.
“There are fewer healthcare workers in the workplace today than there were last year,” said Malcolm, “due to the extreme stress and burnout they have since suffered. 18 months now. “
Malcolm added: “It is becoming increasingly difficult for some hospitals to find open beds and staff at the right level of care for critically ill patients. This is a statewide problem impacting small rural facilities and large metro networks. “
What could help
Health officials argue that robust coronavirus mitigation measures are one of the easiest ways to slow the spread of COVID-19, including the more contagious delta strain.
But there are also upcoming decisions by federal regulators and the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration that could help increase protection.
As of this week, federal regulators are expected to decide whether vaccine boosters are needed for a large portion of the population. There are concerns about whether protective vaccines wane over time and could make those inoculated more susceptible to viral variants.
The White House has encouraged recalls for everyone eight months after their last dose of the vaccine. The World Health Organization has criticized the idea when so many developing countries have had no access to any vaccine.
“We will learn more about the data and the deliberations (from federal regulators) very soon,” said Dr Lynfield.
Discussions also continue as to whether Pfizer, and possibly Moderna, will seek emergency clearance to administer their vaccines to children aged 5 to 11. This decision is expected this fall, possibly by the end of October.