COVID-19 in MN: Hopeful signs as cases, wastewater loads trend lower

Medical staff looks at a computer screen.
Major Tanya Shaw, an ICU nurse based in Mississippi, examines the data of a COVID-19 patient in December at St. Cloud Hospital’s intensive care unit. Minnesota's latest numbers show encouraging trends in the state's COVID battle.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Three things to know

  • Cases and hospitalizations decline, along with Twin Cities wastewater loads

  • Deaths may be plateauing, but seniors more at risk

  • Google search data hints at case decline, maybe?

Even as anecdotes of cases pile up, some data this week indicates that this wave has started to decline. But like always throughout this pandemic, it’s a challenge to understand exactly what’s happening in our communities right now, much less predict what’s going to happen next.

We’ve seen other waves start to wane before ramping up again.

Cases, hospitalizations decline over past week

Cases and overall hospitalizations have taken an encouraging turn over the past week. The decrease in hospitalizations is coming mostly from a decline in those not needing an intensive care bed. ICU hospitalizations appear to have at least plateaued.

Minnesota COVID-19 cases by year in a graph
APM Research Lab
ICU and non ICU hospitalizations in Minnesota
ICU and non-ICU hospitalizations in Minnesota have been steadily increasing but now, have begun to slightly decrease.
APM Research Lab

The CDC’s Community Levels indicator, based on case counts and hospitalizations, also shows a downturn. Last week there were 19 counties rated with high community-level risk, and now that number has dropped to seven.

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A map showing community levels of COVID in Minnesota
CDC COVID-19 community levels for the state of Minnesota. Orange represents high, yellow medium and green, low.
APM Research Lab

Nonetheless, the CDC’s Community Transmission metric still paints Minnesota almost entirely in red, indicating high levels of COVID circulation. This indicator uses case counts and positivity rates.

Wastewater data analyzed by the University of Minnesota’s Medical School shows increasing COVID levels in the state’s southern tier. The south-central region in particular has seen a significant spike over the last few data points.

For regions to the north, there has been a leveling off or decline in relative COVID levels in wastewater tests.

Data showing recent wastewater plants
COVID-19 load in Minnesota wastewater plants
APM Research Lab

The latest data from Metropolitan Council / University of Minnesota Genomic Center’s weekly wastewater analysis corroborates the medical school’s data for the Twin Cities. After more than a month of increasing COVID load, we now see a consistent decline in levels over the past week. Overall the levels are down 38 percent compared to the week before, according to the council.

COVID load in Twin Cities wastewater
The COVID load in Twin Cities metro wastewater is decreasing a bit.
APM Research Lab

The omicron subvariant BA.2.12.1 continues its rise as a share of the overall load, while BA.4 and BA.5 together made up 11 percent, up from seven percent a week earlier. It remains to be seen if the increasing prevalence of these subvariants will lead to another rise in cases.

Wastewater variant frequency
Wastewater has been a key indicator of COVID rates and variant levels.
APM Research Lab

Overall deaths plateau, but spike among long-term care residents

Deaths are higher than the low point we saw in late April and early May, but they have plateaued over the past week’s data.

Minnesota COVID-19 deaths by year in a graph
Deaths in 2020, 2021 and 2022
APM Research Lab

Zooming in on just recent deaths, there was a significant jump among those in long-term care earlier this month. As of the most recent data, there were about the same number of deaths among those in long-term care as those not in long-term care.

A graph showing Minnesota COVID-19 deaths by long term status
Minnesota COVID-19 deaths by long-term care status.
APM Research Lab

This may seem surprising, given that 96 percent of Minnesotans aged 65+ are vaccinated, and 84 percent are boosted. But the recent strains of COVID seem to be better at evading the vaccine’s protections, with troubling implications especially for those groups who we know are more vulnerable to the virus. A Washington Post analysis showed that, as of April, those aged 75 and above made up more than 60 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the United States.

So, even as cases may be going down, and many cases are more mild than previous variants, it’s important to note that people more vulnerable to COVID — and those around them – may need to exercise continued caution. 

Hey Google: Is it COVID or just allergies?

You wake up with a little sore throat. You’re not sure the coffee smells as robust. Could it be allergies? A cold? COVID? Or just old coffee beans? Many of us turn first to Google for answers.

Google takes a sample of those (and all other) searches and makes the data public, allowing us to see relative popularity of search terms over time. The Delphi Group at Carnegie Mellon has further processed that data for COVID-like symptoms.

The loss of smell and taste has provided an especially good potential COVID marker as a search term due to its relative rarity before COVID. Here’s how such searches have trended recently in Minnesota.

A graph showing symptom searches
Smell and taste as symptoms have been searched frequently in Minnesota and nationwide on Google.
APM Research Lab

After the omicron wave early in the year, there doesn’t seem to be much of a consistent trend. But recent research has shown that loss of smell and taste is less likely to be a symptom of omicron compared to earlier strains. So, let’s look at the other Google Trends data that Carnegie Mellon provides – searches related to common cold symptoms (which also overlap with allergy symptoms).

Google rates for common cold
The search rate for the common cold on Google in Minnesota and nationwide.
APM Research Lab

This seems to follow the COVID cases trend this spring a little better, and the drop off in recent weeks is exciting to see. Or the trend could suggest that colds or allergies are waning, and it has nothing to do with COVID!.

So, probably not robust enough on its own for personal risk-related decision making, but a potential sign of hope for Minnesota.