While only four counties have been confirmed to be home to people who have tested positive for the new SARS-CoV-2 variant, health officials warn that the coronavirus mutation is likely circulating in other parts of Minnesota.
The four counties where the virus strain has been confirmed are all in the Twin Cities metro area: Carver County, Dakota County, Hennepin County and Ramsey County.
There are a total of five confirmed cases of the new variant, known as B117, with the ages of the people ranging from 15 to 37, none of whom to MDH's knowledge have required hospitalization.
"This is circulating in Minnesota. We've identified cases in four counties but that does not mean that it's confined to four counties. We've been looking for this, so we know it's circulating in multiple places," said MDH infectious disease expert Kris Ehresmann.
Two of the five cases are from individuals who live in the same household.
The new variant, first identified in the United Kingdom, is not believed to cause more severe illness, nor is it believed to be immune to vaccines, but experts do think the B117 strain is more contagious than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus.
"Transmission for this virus appears to be anywhere from 20, maybe 60-70% higher than previous COVID-19 viruses," said Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, in a Monday interview on WCCO Radio.
"We're going to have more cases, more severe illnesses and more deaths. It will obviously burden our healthcare system in a way that already was a challenge, now it's going to be a real challenge for many locations around the country," Osterholm added.
Osterholm's concern was echoed by MDH Commissioner Jan Malcom, who said she had already expected cases to be on the rise in Minnesota due to year-end holidays, more time indoors due to cold weather, and more gatherings.
"And we also flag that if this new variant is circulating or becomes a dominant strain ... that also is likely to put upward pressure on the trajectory of our case growth," said Malcolm.
The B117 variant has been found in Minnesota just as shuttered parts of the economy – bars, restaurants and entertainment businesses – are allowed to reopen indoors at a limited capacity, in addition to school districts around the state preparing to send elementary students back to school for in-person instruction in the coming weeks.
Health officials do not know at this point if the B117 variant is capable of producing more severe effects on children. COVID-19 can spread rapidly through all age groups, but people over the age of 60 and those with underlying health conditions are more vulnerable to severe disease.