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Minnesota health officials express concern over B.1.1.7-driven COVID increase

Cases and hospitalizations are rising in Minnesota.

The race between vaccines and variants is intensifying in Minnesota, with the state health department on Thursday that it has conducted genomic sequencing to identify 943 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant, though it suspects that B.1.1.7 is now the dominant form of coronavirus spreading in the state.

"We are continuing to see spread of a number of variants," said Dr. Ruth Lynfield, state epidemiologist, during a press call Thursday. "These variants are of concern because they appear to be more contagious and in some cases they appear to be associated with more severe disease."

B.1.1.7, first discovered in the United Kingdom, is "about 50% more contagious and has been associated with a 64% higher death rate in the U.K. compared to other strains," Lynfield said. 

Of the 943 B.1.1.7 cases that have been confirmed in Minnesota, 36 patients were hospitalized and four people died. 

The true number of B.1.1.7 cases in Minnesota can't be known due to limited sample testing. The Minnesota Department of Health is currently sequencing approximately 350 positive tests per week, while the University of Minnesota Genomics Center is analyzing a further 250 samples each week.

Lynfield estimated that between 54% and 66% of nearly 2,600 positive samples tested Mar. 22-27 were B.1.1.7. 

B.1.1.7 isn't the only variant that has been found in Minnesota. The others: 

  • B.1.429 - 214 cases; variant first identified in California
  • B.1351 - 22 cases; variant first found in South Africa
  • P.1 - 3 cases; variant discovered in Brazil

B.1.1.7 is believed to be the driving force behind the rising cases in Minnesota. On Thursday, the health department reported more than 2,100 cases, the most of any day since early January. With cases rising, there have also been more hospitalizations. The number of inpatients being cared for around the state has increased 74.5% since Mar. 1.

  • March 1: 251 (191 non-ICU, 60 ICU)
  • March 7: 223 (177 non-ICU, 46 ICU)
  • March 13: 255 (194 non-ICU, 61 ICU)
  • March 20: 324 (246 non-ICU, 78 ICU)
  • March 27: 356 (264 non-ICU, 92 ICU)
  • April 1: 439 (327 non-ICU, 112 ICU)

"We are experiencing a concerning growth in cases and hospitalizations," said Lynfield. "We need to act together in our communities to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2, including the spread of these variants. These variants are more contagious and the one that is very common – B.1.1.7 – has been associated with causing more severe disease."

At 439 admissions, it pales in comparison to the late November high point of more than 1,800 people with COVID-19 being cared for in Minnesota hospitals. How high the current surge will go is unknown, but what Minnesota has going for it is that 31.9% of the state's population has received at least one dose of a vaccine, according to the CDC. 

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That still leaves millions susceptible to the virus, though more than 80% of Minnesota's age 65-plus population – the people most vulnerable to severe illness and death from COVID – have been vaccinated. And the vaccines – Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson – are known to reduce death and severe from COVID-19, including the B.1.1.7 variant. 

The warnings about rising cases and hospitalizations by Minnesota health experts is in line with other ominous warnings from national leaders, including Dr. Michael Osterholm saying a massive surge in Michigan should serve as warning to the rest of the country, and CDC Director Rochelle Wolensky saying she is "scared" and experiencing a recurring feeling "impending doom." 

At this time, there has been no indication that Gov. Tim Walz is considering bringing back some of the restrictions that had been loosened as cases dropped from the November peak.

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