A more contagious variant of the coronavirus is likely transmitting widely throughout Minnesota, according to members of the Minnesota Department of Health.
The B.1.1.7 variant, first discovered in the United Kingdom, has now been confirmed through genome sequencing in nearly 500 Minnesotans who tested positive for COVID-19, and that's likely just a small piece of the puzzle.
"We have now identified 479 cases of this variant. We estimated that 50-65% of Covid-positive specimens tested Mar. 16-20 were B.1.1.7. This is an increase compared with specimens tested Mar. 10-15 in which 38-44% of those specimens were estimated to be B.1.1.7," said Dr. Ruth Lynfield, state epidemiologist, during a Tuesday press call.
Lynfield said there is likely "widespread transmission" of the B.1.1.7 variant in Minnesota, adding that B.1.1.7 is "already dominating."
"We are not identifying all cases of B117, however among those that we have identified, approximately 5% have been hospitalized. We will monitor this closely as we expand our sequencing efforts and are able to identify more cases," said Lynfield.
News of the variant gaining a stronghold on the state comes at the same time Minnesota is making significant progress on the vaccine front. Around 25% of Minnesotans have received at least one dose of a vaccine, while about 15% of the state's 5.6 million population have completed the vaccine series.
Lynfield described the current situation as a "race" between vaccination and the spread of B.1.1.7, which she said has a "higher attack rate," meaning it can infect more people than SARS-CoV-2 (the coronavirus that started the pandemic).
"Most Minnesotans are not yet fully vaccinated. That means we have millions of Minnesotans susceptible to COVID-19 infection and the health impacts that go with that," said Lynfield.
"A more infectious virus spreading widely among millions of susceptible Minnesotans – some who may be tempted to relax their social distancing, masking and other precautions – can help fuel a third spike in Covid cases and a corresponding increase in hospitalizations and death."
The good news is that the vaccine has so far proved to be very effective. Of the nearly 850,000 Minnesotans who have completed the vaccine series, only 89 have tested positive for COVID-19 more than two weeks after receiving their second shot.
None of the 89 patients who tested positive after completing the vaccine series have died. The vaccines are approximately 95% effective, so it's entirely possible that around five of 100 people who are fully vaccinated may still be susceptible.