The first of 12 days of the Minnesota State Fair is underway in Falcon Heights, marking the debut of what health officials have expressed concern as a potential breeding ground for the delta variant of the coronavirus.
Masks and proof of vaccination are not mandated at the fair, though members of the Minnesota Department of Health are encouraging people to mask up when visiting indoor public places and crowded outdoor events. It's because the delta variant has shown the ability to be highly transmissible even when outside, unlike previous strains of the coronavirus.
Hennepin Healthcare Vice President of Medical Affairs Dr. David Hilden is taking precautions one step further by urging people to avoid going to the fair if they're not vaccinated.
"I hate to be the wet blanket on the State Fair, but I do have to plead with people that if you're going to the State Fair you only do so if you're vaccinated. If you're unvaccinated going to the state fair, that is not safe for anybody," Hilden said during an appearance on WCCO Radio Thursday morning.
Hilden says fairgoers should wear a mask regardless if they're inside or outside, noting that there are other ways to protect yourself at the fair, namely attempting to keep your distance from others, frequently washing hands and trying to avoid peak times of the fair.
Evidence in Minnesota of outdoor transmission at well-attended events has begun to emerge, albeit on a relatively small scale for now.
Kris Ehresmann, director of infectious diseases at the Minnesota Department of Health, said Tuesday that MDH has traced nine cases of COVID-19 back to WE Fest, the outdoor country music festival in Detroit Lakes, three weeks ago, one of which resulted in the hospitalization of a 38-year-old.
There have also been 13 cases in Minnesota so far linked to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota two weeks ago – where there is a mixture of outdoor and indoor events.
However, South Dakota has seen COVID-19 cases triple in the two weeks since Sturgis, and there have been outbreaks at outdoor events in other parts of the country, with more than 60 cases linked to a music festival in Oregon in early July.
Hilden noted that hospitals are "exceptionally full" in the Twin Cities right now, which the health department says is due to staffing shortages, treatments delayed from last year, higher than usual respiratory illnesses in children and of course, rising COVID-19 levels.
"They are as strained as I've ever seen them," Hilden said of nurses in the Twin Cities. "The hospitals are exceptionally full, so if you have a heart attack there might not be a bed immediately available. That being said, the hospitals will shuffle things around to take care of you."
There are 584 people with COVID-19 hospitalized in Minnesota, according to the latest MDH data, including 164 in intensive care.
"Almost every single one is unvaccinated," Hilden said.