The Minnesota Department of Health is urging all Minnesotans involved in sports to get tested weekly for COVID-19 to limit the spread of the virus.
MDH has released updated guidance Thursday that doesn't just apply to those involved in youth sports, but all sports across the state.
"Reflecting ongoing concerns about the potential of sports and other group activities to contribute to COVID-19 transmission, the state is now urging athletes, coaches, referees, volunteers and other participants to get tested for COVID-19 on a weekly basis," it says.
It continues to "strongly encourage" students not taking part in sports or other group activities to still get tested every two weeks.
It has also updated its guidance however so that participants in outdoor sports do not need to wear a face mask while they're on the field or court, but must put their mask back on whenever they're off it – and masks must still be worn for indoor sports.
Youth sports have been linked to numerous COVID-19 outbreaks in recent months, while the return of in-person classes at the majority of Minnesota schools since the beginning of March has been followed by another spike in COVID cases statewide.
"Much of the spread of COVID-19 in recent weeks has been seen in younger Minnesotans, particularly among middle and high school," MDH said.
Keeping cases low in schools – where the majority of students are not yet eligible to be vaccinated – is seen as a priority in limiting the virus' impact elsewhere, with the Minnesota Department of Education on Thursday urging the state's middle and high schools to make COVID-19 testing available in their buildings.
The Department of Health. will be providing free saliva testing kits to any middle school, high school, or organized sports team in the state.
"In addition to testing, it is critical that Minnesotans remain vigilant about the other tried-and-true protective measures of masking up, social distancing, and staying home when sick," the joint statement from MDH and MDE says.
Around 60% of the COVID cases in Minnesota are believed to be the more contagious B.1.1.7 U.K. variant, which can also present more severe symptoms.
Hospitalizations have risen recently, while the average age of hospitalized patients has been trending younger: 59 years old statewide compared to 69 during the November and December surge.
HealthPartners said on Thursday that the rise in recent COVID hospitalizations at its site has been driven by middle-aged, unvaccinated adults.
But Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm believes much of the virus' spread is coming from younger generations.
“The last month plus has been very worrisome – especially among younger Minnesotans,” said Minnesota Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm.
"Just this week we saw the number of school-related COVID-19 cases in students exceed the high set in November during the fall surge. We are making encouraging progress with vaccinations, but there are still many Minnesotans who are susceptible and we need to do what we can to slow the spread.
"In addition to vaccinations, COVID-19 testing is an important complementary tool to limit the damage of this disease. By testing and catching cases before they spread, we give schools and students the best chance for in-person learning, full sports seasons, and other activities that are so important."