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Minnesota health officials keeping a close eye on COVID uptick

Nurse practitioner Kayla Joyer sanitizes her test-to-treat station
Nurse practitioner Kayla Joyer sanitizes her test-to-treat station after seeing a patient at the Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 testing site.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News 2023

Nationally, emergency room visits and hospitalizations tied to COVID-19 have climbed the past few weeks, according to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Keeley Morris, senior epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of Health, spoke with MPR News on what health officials here are monitoring around COVID.

Listen to the full conversation using the audio player above.

What are we seeing here in Minnesota in terms of infection rates?

Morris: I’ll start by saying that it is a little difficult for us to know exactly how many infections we're having in Minnesota. And the reason for that is because only a small number of cases actually get reported to the Department of Health. We only find out if someone goes to a facility to get tested. And at this point, a lot of people don't get tested if they start to feel sick, or they might choose to test at home.

But that being said, we are seeing a little bit of an uptick in our cases that are reported to the Department of Health. We are also just overall having a low amount of cases at this point in time. But anytime we start to see that trend creeping upward, we want to keep an eye on things just to make sure we're not going to start experiencing a more significant wave.

Are you tracking hospitalization rates and ER visits?

Morris: We definitely keep an eye on hospitalization and mortality rates. And at this point, those indicators aren’t trending upward. But they do tend to lag the increasing cases by at least a couple of weeks.

In Minnesota, we’re a little bit behind some of the other parts of the United States for this increase in cases. So as we start to see our cases climb, we expect that those indicators might be going up a little bit as well.

What are the variants you’re watching? Any of particular concern?

Morris: We have three kind of big variants that are affecting Minnesota, and they’re also the main variants affecting cases nationally. Among our sequenced specimens, we're seeing a lot of the KP.2, KP.3 and LB.1 variants.

Folks might be sort of familiar with KP.2 and KP.3 because they’re often referred to by the colloquial term “FLiRT variants.” That fun name comes from a set of mutations that those variants have that makes them better at evading existing immunity. So that’s immunity that people get from being vaccinated or from having a previous infection.

The FLiRT mutations aren’t actually new; we’ve seen them in variants before. But they are mutations that are well known to increase the virus's ability to evade immunity. LB.1 doesn’t have those FLiRT mutations, but it does have mutations that give it a competitive advantage and allow it to evade immunity in other ways.

Are the symptoms still the same? In terms of cough, runny nose fever, what are you seeing?

Morris: We’re not seeing a change in the symptoms that people can expect from these new variants. And thankfully they’re also at least with the information we have so far, not appearing to be more severe. So the same stuff that folks have been keeping an eye out for for COVID for a long time, including those symptoms that you mentioned, are still relevant.

If people think that they’re sick, we encourage them to get tested. In particular, when we have an increase in cases like this, we worry most about our high-risk folks who are at greater risk of severe illness and hospitalization.

For those folks, getting tested is really important because if they know they have COVID-19, they can seek antiviral medications, which do a really good job at reducing that hospitalization risk.

For up-to-date COVID coverage in Minnesota, visit our data page.

Listen to the full conversation using the audio player above.