More than 25% of Minnesotans have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine and nearly 80% of adults aged 65 and older have been vaccinated, but there remain concerns that COVID-19 variants capable of rapid spread will throw a wrench into the progress.
Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said Monday that Americans need to continue wearing masks and social distancing to prevent "another avoidable surge."
"We must act now, and I am worried that if we don't take the right actions now, we will have another avoidable surge — just as we are seeing in Europe right now and just as we are so aggressively scaling up vaccination," Walensky said Monday during a White House briefing.
In Minnesota, case levels and hospitalizations are once again climbing. Through March 21, there were 318 people with COVID-19 hospitalized, including 77 in intensive care. Just two weeks ago, on March 6, there were 210 COVID-19 patients admitted to Minnesota hospitals, and just 37 in an ICU.
Hospitalizations tend to lag 2-3 weeks behind new cases, which would suggest that hospital admissions will continue to rise in the coming weeks, just as cases have risen in recent weeks.
Minnesota's current 7-day rolling average is 1,229 cases per day, according to Johns Hopkins University. For the majority of February and the first week of March, the new cases average was typically between 700 and 900 – which was a low point following an October-December surge that saw the rolling average exceed 5,000 cases per day during a period from early November through early December.
"We are starting to see just a slight uptick in the number of cases in Minnesota," said Dr. David Hilden, of Hennepin Healthcare, in an interview last week with WCCO Radio. "Hospitalizations and deaths do tend to lag case increases by a few weeks ... so it's a little bit concerning."
The B.1.1.7 variant, otherwise known as the U.K. variant because it was first discovered in the United Kingdom, has already proved highly efficient at spreading in Minnesota.
In Carver County, the variant was confirmed in around a quarter of 140 COVID-19 cases that were traced back to numerous locations and groups, namely schools and sports teams, according to the Star Tribune. Statewide, the Minnesota Department of Health has used genomic sequencing to find 317 cases of B.1.1.7.
Last week, the Washington Post identified Minnesota as a potential hot spot, which falls in line with what Dr. Michael Osterholm, director for the Center for Disease Research & Policy at the University of Minnesota, has been warning about for weeks.
The slight increase in case levels is happening just as Minnesota's economic and social safety measures have been relaxed by Gov. Tim Walz. Bars and restaurants are open to 75% capacity, gyms can operate at 50% capacity and social gatherings are allowed more people from more households. In April, sporting events like Twins, Wild and Timberwolves games will be allowed to host thousands of fans.
Walensky said that as states relax restrictions it is of the utmost importance to continue mask-wearing and social distancing, even in states where those measures are not required (they are in Minnesota).