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How the state is responding and what to expect – Twin Cities

Minnesota’s coronavirus cases are rising more quickly than ever before, thanks to the highly contagious omicron variant — and it is almost certain to get much worse.

“The numbers are going to get pretty high here. It is going to be a challenging few weeks,” Gov. Tim Walz said Tuesday during a visit to a Maplewood alternative care site, staffed by National Guard members, where patients can convalesce and make room at overcrowded hospitals.

Unfortunately, the state of Minnesota’s current outbreak was clouded this week after health officials noted they were dealing with yet another backlog in test reporting. This time, roughly 135,000 coronavirus tests were not correctly uploaded to the state’s database and needed updating, skewing daily outbreak measures.

Nevertheless, Minnesota’s test-positivity rate, which the state reports after a week lag period for data cleanup, has climbed to 15.6 percent. That’s the highest level of the nearly two-year pandemic.

Weekly cases per capita have also jumped and now near 100 infections per 100,000 residents.

“It is quite clear that we are in that rapid acceleration phase,” Jan Malcolm, state health commissioner, said Thursday at the opening of another new coronavirus testing facility. “There is just a lot of COVID out there right now.”

Health officials now believe omicron is the source of nine in 10 new infections — something Malcolm called an “omicron tsunami” on Friday.

WHAT’S DIFFERENT ABOUT OMICRON

The latest variant of concern is believed to spread three to four times more quickly than the delta strain that drove Minnesota’s fourth and longest surge in coronavirus infections. That surge began in the summer of 2021 and never really subsided before omicron took over in December.

Minnesota was one of the first states to identify cases of the new variant, discovering an infection Dec. 1 in a Minneapolis man who recently returned from New York City. By mid-December the omicron strain was believed to be the source of most new infections here and across the nation.

A big reason for omicron’s increased transmissibility is its perceived ability to evade vaccines. Vaccines still provide protection against severe illness and death, but breakthrough cases are on the rise.

Additionally, pediatric hospitalizations have been on the rise nationally during the new omicron wave. Some health officials attribute that both to children’s low rate of vaccination and the tendency of omicron to attack the upper rather than lower respiratory tract, which is narrower in kids.

The new variant is also believed to cause milder infections, especially in people who are fully vaccinated and have had a booster dose. But a trend toward milder illness does not mean omicron isn’t dangerous.

“The hair almost stands up on my neck when I hear people say: ‘Omicron is no delta. It’s mild,’ ” said Dr. Gregory Poland, who founded and leads the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group. “It is if you are fully vaccinated and boosted. It might be if you are not. But odds are, you are playing Russian roulette, and you may not be that lucky.”

HOW MINNESOTA IS RESPONDING

State and federal health officials continue to urge a multilayered approach to coronavirus mitigation.

That means:

  • Regular testing — if exposed to someone with an infection and especially if experiencing symptoms.
  • Wearing masks in public places — medical-grade masks are now recommended over cloth.
  • Socially distancing in public places or when gathering with other households.
  • Quarantining if exposed and isolating if infected according to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Getting vaccinated and a booster when eligible.

Right now, some of those things are easier to do than others, because of the growing demand, specifically for vaccines and tests, in light of surging omicron cases. Walz acknowledged those struggles earlier this week.

“The number of tests we are giving is an all-time high,” the governor said Tuesday. “There are going to be some delays. We are making structural changes. … I ask Minnesotans for just a little bit of patience.”

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