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Cases trending down; vaccination urgency remains

Minnesota’s COVID-19 picture continues to improve, with cases and hospitalizations trending down off the top of a recent wave. Officials, though, remain concerned about the flattening pace of vaccinations — and that some Minnesotans are late for their second shot.

Public health leaders continue to urge Minnesotans to keep their guard up during proms, graduations and other spring events to protect against spreading the disease, noting that more contagious COVID-19 variants are driving new cases across the state. One of them, known as the U.K. variant, is the dominant strain in the state, making up 60 to 70 percent of new cases, officials said.

Minnesota has also seen small but growing numbers of other variants: 88 cases of the South African variant and 65 cases of the Brazilian variant. State infectious disease director Kris Erhesmann said the average age for cases of both of those variants is 37.

Officials on Thursday also said they’ve confirmed 22 COVID-19 cases linked to recent protests in Brooklyn Center over the police killing of Daunte Wright. Half of those cases were found among law enforcement. The Health Department urged anyone at the protests to get tested.

Overall, conditions in Minnesota have improved to the point that Gov. Tim Walz is expected to loosen more restrictions on public gathering places, likely next week.

“The impact of the variants remains a wild card,” Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters Wednesday. “We’re certainly hopeful with the recent apparent kind of leveling off in the case rates, although still at a very high level. We’re certainly not declaring victory yet.”

The count of known, active cases came in at 14,741 in Thursday’s numbers, slightly higher than the prior day but still down from the most recent peak of about 20,000 in mid-April. The seven-day trend line is at its lowest point in more than three weeks.

Given the state’s vaccination efforts, officials said they didn’t expect this spring wave would match the 50,000 active cases seen at the top of the late November surge, but they remained worried given the rise in new COVID-19 strains.

The percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive continues to dip after a recent upswing and remains just below the 5 percent threshold that experts find concerning.

Hospitalizations had been climbing the past few weeks, hovering at levels not seen since January.

Thursday’s numbers showed 644 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Minnesota; 176 needed intensive care. Both figures are down from the prior week. Hospitalizations can often stay higher for several weeks following an increase in active cases.

Fifteen deaths reported Thursday brought Minnesota’s pandemic toll to 7,128. Among those who have died, about 61 percent had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities; most had underlying health problems.

The state has recorded 573,938 total confirmed or probable cases so far in the pandemic, including the 1,921 posted Thursday. About 96 percent of Minnesotans known to be infected with COVID-19 in the pandemic have recovered to the point where they no longer need to isolate.

Regionally, all parts of Minnesota are in better shape than they were in late November and early December. Case counts had been creeping up the past few weeks across the state, but the trend appears to have peaked.

Vaccination pace leveling

Minnesota’s vaccination pace remains relatively flat as officials work now to reach out to those who haven’t been vaccinated.

More than 2.5 million residents 16 and older now have at least one vaccine dose, and more than 1.8 million have completed their vaccinations, as of Wednesday’s update.

That works out to about 42 percent of the 16-and-older population completely vaccinated and 57 percent with at least one shot, including about 87 percent of those 65 and older.

The state’s vaccination efforts have been hampered the past few weeks by supply cuts, particularly of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which federal authorities paused earlier this month as they investigated the possibility of rare side effects associated with the shot.

The pace may pick up, after federal health officials lifted the pause on using the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. But the recent production breakdown that resulted in millions of J&J doses ruined is having an impact.

Officials also acknowledge the state must do more to connect unvaccinated people to shots.

The Health Department estimates about about 3.4 percent of Minnesotans who’ve received their first dose of a two-dose regimen are late for their second shot. Nationwide, about 8 percent of Americans have skipped out on their second dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Out of more than 1.2 million Minnesotans completely vaccinated with two weeks logged beyond the last dose, officials say they’ve confirmed just a sliver, 1,163 cases, where a completely vaccinated person became infected with COVID-19.

Youth counts concerning

While the numbers are improving, officials continue to emphasize the pandemic is not over.

Minnesota officials say they want more testing of middle and high school students because they’re increasingly concerned about the spread of COVID-19 in younger people, particularly those playing youth sports.

State health and education officials have posted updated guidance urging athletes, coaches, referees, volunteers and other youth sports participants to get tested weekly for COVID-19.

Students not participating in sports or other group activities are “still strongly encouraged” to test every two weeks, they said. Middle and high schools are being advised to offer on-site testing.

People in their 20s still make up the age bracket with the state’s largest number of confirmed cases — more than 106,000 since the pandemic began.

The number of high school-age youth confirmed with the disease has also grown, with more than 46,000 15-to-19-year-olds known to be infected during the pandemic.

Although young people are less likely to feel the worst effects of the disease and end up hospitalized, experts worry they will spread it unknowingly to older relatives and members of other vulnerable populations. Those with the COVID-19 virus can spread it when they don’t have symptoms.

People attending proms, graduations and other youth oriented events are special concern now for health officials.

The work by schools and districts to build safeguards into those events “can be completely undermined if students and parents don’t do their part, as well,” Ehresmann told reporters Thursday.

Officials confirmed their comments were motivated partly by photos of a prom in southwestern Minnesota where many people were not masked.

“These kinds of events are ripe for spread” unless people take precautions, Malcolm said.

South-central Minnesota update

• Freeborn County: five new lab-confirmed cases; 67 active cases; 3,357 cumulative cases; 12,437 people with at least one vaccine dose, 9,988 with completed series

• Faribault County: five new lab-confirmed cases; 1,483 total cases; 5,458 with at least one vaccine dose, 4,613 with completed series

• Mower County: two new lab-confirmed cases; 4,559 total cases; 17,435 with at least one vaccine dose, 14,450 with completed series

• Steele County: nine new lab-confirmed cases, two probable cases; 3,754 total cases; 15,024 with at least one vaccine dose, 11,124 with completed series

• Waseca County: four new lab-confirmed cases; 2,339 total cases; 7,238 with at least one vaccine dose, 5,505 with completed series