For now, the COVID-19 trends in Minnesota seem to be pointing in an overall good direction. So, are we in for another winter wave of COVID, or not? No one knows for sure, but several things suggest the possibility another wave is coming:
Behavior change — namely more indoor gatherings — in places where cold weather will soon be blowing in.
Rising hospitalizations in Europe, which have sometimes portended a wave in the United States.
Signs of new variants that may be better at evading immunity — although much of that evidence comes from lab-based research, and scientists don’t know how the new variants will play out in the real world.
But, there are also factors that could help prevent COVID from taking off, or from having the severe impacts we’ve seen in the past:
The population has built up more immunity, through both infection and vaccines.
There are more medications available to fight the virus.
The new bivalent booster is likely to offer better protection against new variants — although uptake has been slower than public health officials had hoped.
On that new bivalent booster — it was approved this week for kids as young as five by the Food and Drug Administration as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Specifically, the Washington Post reports that Moderna’s updated booster is authorized for people age 6-17 and is available now. Pfizer-BioNTech’s updated booster is authorized for 5-11 year-olds and should be available next week.
And another note on children before this week’s COVID data update — doctors across the country and the CDC are warning of higher-than-normal cases of severe respiratory illnesses from viruses other than COVID, including rhinovirus and enterovirus. Locally, KSTP reports that Twin Cities hospitals have seen more enterovirus cases than is typical. Compared to COVID, enterovirus lives longer on surfaces, so extra handwashing is encouraged to help prevent transmission.
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So, on to the latest COVID-19 numbers this week in Minnesota, as well as a rundown of the results from the APM Research Lab’s monthly vaccination update.
Cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all holding steady or declining
Cases are down or holding steady across the state, including in the northern areas, which had seen a recent uptick.
Intensive care unit hospitalizations are the lowest they’ve been since late June. Non-ICU admissions, while still higher than they’ve been at other points in the pandemic, have stayed at a steady plateau longer than for any other period so far since March 2020.
Up until we can be reasonably sure death data is mostly accurate (three weeks ago), COVID-19 deaths were on the decline. Since then, there have been some days with higher reports of deaths. If not many more deaths come in, the current trend will be the relatively flat one shown by the dashed green line below, but it’s possible that there is somewhat of an uptick in deaths this month that just hasn’t been reported yet.
Wastewater showing recent declines in Twin Cities and no new strains
The most recent wastewater analysis in the state, from the Metropolitan Council and the University of Minnesota’s Genomic Center, shows an eight percent decline in COVID-19 levels entering the Metro Plant compared to last week. Although the total viral RNA load entering the Metro Plant has gone relatively unchanged recently, the Metropolitan Council notes with this week’s update that there has been an 11 percent decrease over the past four weeks, and a 47 percent decrease since the end of June.
The Metropolitan Council’s summary this week also notes a slight change in the composition of the variants: “BA.5 constituted 88 percent of the viral RNA entering Metro, and BA.4 and BA.2.75 represented seven percent and two percent, respectively, of the total viral RNA load.” Compared to last week, the prominence of BA.5 has dropped modestly this week, by two percentage points, and the presence of BA.4 has increased even more modestly, by one percent. We’ll have to wait and see if this represents a trend.
The latest data out of the University of Minnesota’s Wastewater SARS-CoV2 Surveillance Study, tracking data from seven regions through Aug. 24, shows mixed results compared to last week’s good news of declining levels in most regions, although three regions still saw monthly and weekly declines. A monthly and weekly increase was observed in South East treatment plants, 32 percent and 79 percent, respectively. The Twin Cities Metro and Central regions saw monthly declines but an increase of four percent each over the last week. North East treatment plants observed the opposite trend, a monthly increase but a weekly decrease.
CDC: COVID-19 “Community Level” is high in two counties, medium in 21
Faribault and Freeborn counties in southern Minnesota are rated high in the latest CDC’s latest “Community Level” ratings. Residents in those counties should mask up when in public indoor settings according to CDC guidance. Those ratings place 21 counties at medium-level risk, many of which are in the northeastern and southeastern parts of the state.
The Twin Cities and St. Cloud continue to be low-risk according to the CDC’s community level ratings this week. Unlike last week, Rochester—located in Olmsted County—is now rated medium-risk.
Although there are only two high-risk counties on the “Community Level” map, the CDC also notes that 35 of Minnesota’s 87 counties meet or exceed their threshold for high COVID-19 transmission of at least 100 cases per 100,000 over the last week. The good news is this is significantly lower than the 47 counties above that threshold last week. In further good news, only three counties this week, down from nine last week, exceeded a weekly case rate of 200 per 100,000: Red Lake, Kittson and Grant.
Inoculation Nation: Increases in vaccine dose distribution and administration, likely driven by boosters
In September, the federal government distributed the highest number of COVID-19 shots, 44.2 million, since January, and last month also saw the highest number of vaccine doses administered, 12.5 million, since April. This is according to the most recent data available as reported in the latest Inoculation Nation update published this week by the APM Research Lab.
Just over one million U.S. residents became fully vaccinated in September, an increase of 0.3 percent of the population. As of Oct. 9, 68 percent of Americans were fully vaccinated, and about 111 million — 34 percent of all Americans and 49 percent of those who were fully vaccinated — have received their first booster dose. 25 million U.S. residents have received a second booster dose, and 11.5 million got the updated booster.
The overall proportion of those who are fully vaccinated and received their first booster remain similar compared to last month. What has changed is in the number of Americans who have received a second booster dose or the updated booster. For context, the CDC approved the updated bivalent booster shot on Sept. 1. What these patterns suggest is that Americans who have been unconvinced about getting vaccinated thus far will likely remain so. Among those who are fully vaccinated, however, half have chosen not to receive a booster dose.
Where does Minnesota stand in terms of vaccinated and boosted population?
Currently, 71 percent of Minnesotans have completed their primary series of vaccination against COVID-19. While this is above what some consider the threshold for reaching herd immunity, Minnesota places nineteenth in terms of the proportion of the state population that has completed their primary series.
The state ranks higher, however, when it comes to booster shots. In Minnesota, 2.4 million people, or 43 percent of the state population, have received booster shots. This places Minnesota seventh when it comes to boosting its population.