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MN urges more COVID-19 youth testing, OKs playing sports maskless outdoors

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

State health and education officials on Thursday 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.

As it urged more testing, the Health Department also eased its guidance on when student athletes must wear masks.

Officials said players do not have to wear masks while playing outdoor sports but must wear them when not actively playing — sitting on the sideline or the baseball dugout, for instance. Masks must continue to be worn at all times for indoor sports, the agency said.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters in a morning briefing Thursday that the number of school-related COVID-19 cases in students this week exceeds the high set in November during the fall surge.

She also cautioned that hoped-for proms, graduation ceremonies and other events this spring “are not a given” unless the spread is better contained.

We really do believe that the end of the pandemic is in sight, but we’re not there yet,” she said. “It depends entirely on the decisions we make now, and over the coming weeks.”

Current wave cresting?

The newest testing guidance comes as Minnesota’s overall COVID-19 numbers continue to suggest the recent wave of new cases may have crested. But the race is still on to get more Minnesotans vaccinated.

Known, active cases came in at just under 17,000 in Thursday’s state Health Department report — up slightly from the prior day but still among the lowest counts in the past two weeks and down from Friday’s peak of just over 20,000.

Given the state’s vaccination push, officials didn’t expect this wave would match the 50,000 cases seen in the late November surge. But they’ve been anxious about the growth of COVID-19 variants and Minnesotans’ willingness to stay vigilant against the disease.

The percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive continues to trend down after a recent upswing. It’s still above the 5 percent threshold that experts find concerning.

Vaccination pace slips as supplies stall

State Health Department data show more than 1.6 million Minnesotans have completed their full vaccine series — two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — while more than 2.3 million have at least one dose, including nearly 86 percent of residents age 65 and older.

The state’s efforts have been hampered recently by supply cuts, particularly in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which federal authorities paused last week as they investigate the possibility of rare side effects associated with the shot.

Still, supply still continues to outpace demand in some parts of the state.

On Tuesday, Mayo Clinic, which has locations throughout southern Minnesota, put a call out to media that it had too many spots. In a notice sent to the press, Mayo said that people who are not Clinic patients could sign up for a vaccine with them, as well as people who don’t live in Minnesota.

Hospital, ICU needs hover at winter levels

Metrics like hospitalizations and deaths often continue to rise or stay high for awhile even as active cases start to ebb. That’s the case in this wave.

Hospitalizations have climbed significantly over the past few weeks and are hovering at levels not seen since January. Health officials say coronavirus variants circulating in Minnesota are driving those increases.

Thursday’s numbers showed 683 people with COVID-19 in Minnesota hospitals; 196 needed an intensive care bed.

The age of those newly hospitalized is trending younger than earlier in the pandemic. The majority of people in the hospital now for COVID-19 are younger than 60.

Ten deaths reported Thursday raised Minnesota’s overall pandemic death toll to 7,054. Among those who have died, about 62 percent had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities; most had underlying health problems.

The state has recorded 562,420 total confirmed or probable cases so far in the pandemic, including the 1,973 posted Thursday. About 95 percent of Minnesotans known to be infected with COVID-19 in the pandemic have recovered to the point where they no longer need to be isolated.

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