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.
- 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.”
This week, Walz announced three new community testing sites — in Anoka, Cottage Grove and North Branch — that will be operated by the Minnesota National Guard. Altogether there are now more than two dozen community testing sites statewide.
Walz has also promised 1.8 million more at-home tests will be distributed to schools and 150,000 will be distributed in high-risk communities.
Walz and Malcolm touted the state’s wide-ranging testing system. They also acknowledged high demand and wait times and said they hoped any delays would be short-lived.
“We go into this omicron surge in a better position than many,” Malcolm said. “We are working on all fronts to try to maximize the testing capacity that we have.”
ON THE BRINK
In addition to the 200 guardsmen working on testing sites, another 500 are working as medical aides to help address hospital capacity issues. More than a dozen teams are working in long-term care facilities, like the one in Maplewood that Walz visited Tuesday, to move less serious patients out of hospitals to make room for COVID-19 patients and others with more serious maladies.
Hospitals are already at the brink or beyond. The Minnesota Hospital Association pleaded with residents Friday not to go to emergency rooms for coronavirus tests.
“We have run out of words to describe what we are undergoing — a crisis does not even come close. Hospitals are literally full,” a statement from the group said. “We urgently need the public’s help to keep our emergency departments available for medical emergencies.”
While omicron cases have been milder so far, it is so much more infectious that state officials fear already stressed hospitals could be overrun. The end goal for the so-called multilayered mitigation approach is the same: to slow infections to the point where everyone who needs care can get it.
“A smaller percentage of a much larger number is still a lot of hospital beds,” Walz said.
VACCINES ARE KEY
That’s why vaccines and boosters are still so important in the fight against omicron. While they may not completely prevent infection, in most healthy people they will protect against hospitalization and death.
Dr. Poland, of the Mayo’s Vaccine Research Group, says vaccinated people with a booster are 90 percent less likely to be hospitalized and 70 percent less likely to get really sick compared to the unvaccinated.
But people who are fully vaccinated and boosted may still catch omicron. Breakthrough cases account for more than 23 percent of infections since vaccination began.
“You really have to distinguish between infection blocking and disease blocking,” Poland said. “If you have a normal immune system the ability of these vaccines to block disease is almost unprecedented.”
Vaccines are less able to completely prevent infections, he added.
“You are basically converting what could have been a serious or even lethal case into an asymptomatic, milder or, at worse, moderate case,” Poland said. “That’s the value of the vaccine.”
There’s been a lot of speculation, and hope, that omicron’s transmissibility and its inclination to cause less severe disease in many will lead the coronavirus to become endemic — essentially more like the flu or the common cold.
That’s possible, but health officials here and around the globe caution that it is wishful thinking. The problem is that SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is constantly mutating, and the more people it infects the more chances it has to evolve and change.
“It continues to mutate because we continue to allow it to be highly transmissible and infect lots of people,” Dr. Poland says. “As long as we have this many people unvaccinated, as long as we don’t have masking, this will continue in one iteration or another.”
That doesn’t mean the pandemic will never end. But it suggests that it will take more collective effort to permanently return life to normal.
“I don’t think COVID cares that we are tired. It doesn’t care that we are sick of masks,” Walz said. “It doesn’t care. It simply is infecting folks. We’ve got the tools now, for the most part, to prevent the most serious illness. We have the capacity to turn the corner on this.”
TO GET TESTED, VACCINATED
For information on how to get tested or vaccinated, go to mn.gov/covid19 or call 1-833-431-2053.
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