State health officials reported Friday evening that there is a "rapidly growing outbreak" of the B117 U.K. COVID-19 variant in the southwest Twin Cities.
The Minnesota Department of Health says there has been a 62% increase in COVID cases in Carver County between Feb. 24 and Mar. 4, and the U.K. variant – which scientists have determined is more transmissible than the original SARS-CoV-2 strain – is playing a role in that rise.
Furthermore, MDH says that it has traced "at least" 68 cases of COVID-19 that have been linked to participants in "both school-sponsored and club sports activities, including hockey, wrestling, basketball, alpine skiing and other sports."
It has subsequently seen a rise in cases in Carver County gyms and fitness centers, which contact tracers have linked back to the sports-related cases.
MDH says it's recommending a "county-wide pause" in youth sports for two weeks starting Monday as a result, as well as "active screening, weekly testing of athletes and coaches, no gatherings before/after games."
The department is also recommending Carver County Schools consider pausing extracurricular activities where "full distancing can't be maintained," and local gyms strictly enforce mask rules, pause group classes, and actively screen employees for COVID symptoms.
Genome sequencing on some of the samples given by those infected in the outbreak have confirmed 24 cases of the B117 variant since Jan. 28, the biggest cluster of the variant found so far, while a further 18 people with COVID have been linked to people with the B117 variant and are currently awaiting sequencing results to determine if they too have the variant.
The variant has been found in "athletes, coaches, students and household contacts," MDH says, and "multiple schools, both public and private, have confirmed cases tied to the variant strain cases."
The department says many of those with the B117 variant went to school or attended sports activities while infectious, prompting a call from MDH for youth athletes and parents to "double down" on measures to prevent the virus' spread.
The shutdown of youth sports was lifted in January amid declining cases, but players are still required to wear masks despite efforts to repeal this requirement from the activist group Let Them Play MN.
"We are making progress in the effort to end this pandemic, but we need all Minnesotans to keep up their guard until the work is done,” said Minnesota Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm.
"The variants circulating now present added risk that we may see another surge in cases and we need everyone to do their part to prevent that from happening. That means masking, social distancing, staying home when sick and getting tested when appropriate."