The rapid spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus has reached Minnesota, with state health officials on Wednesday saying it suspects that omicron is now dominant and "has been spreading rapidly in the state since early December, with cases likely doubling in a matter of days."
Because omicron has solidified its dominance in Minnesota, the health department says it is "preparing for an increase in COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks."
The Minnesota Department of Health's genomic sequencing program continues to track variant cases, and as of Dec. 11 the program has identified 65 cases of omicron – a jump of more than nine-fold since there were a mere 7 cases identified through Dec. 4.
It's critical, however, to note that the confirmed 65 samples represent a very small portion of all positive cases, as there is essentially a 10-day reporting lag and only a fraction of test samples undergo genomic sequencing.
The 65 omicron confirmations have been traced to 12 Minnesota counties, though the health department doesn't specify which counties, only to say that 55 have come from the metro area, three in central Minnesota five in southeast Minnesota, and one each in the northeast, northwest and southwest regions.
That's why health experts say it's important that everyone make sure they are up to date with their COVID-19 vaccine and booster doses, as well as layering protection by masking in public, social distancing and staying home when sick.
"This aligns with evidence we’ve seen that Omicron spreads much easier than earlier variants. The quick rise of the Omicron variant underscores the importance of everyone taking steps to slow its spread so we don’t overwhelm our already stressed health care system," the health department announced Wednesday.
"We have nearly 3.5 million Minnesotans fully vaccinated and protected, and more Minnesotans are getting vaccinated and boosted every day. We have the tools and knowledge to respond more effectively than at any other point in the pandemic, and the federal government will be providing additional resources for testing and health care support in the weeks ahead."
In addition to getting vaccinated, boosted, masking and social distancing, the state recommends that anyone planning to attend a holiday gathering should get tested for COVID-19 because of the threat of asymptomatic transmission.
"If you are using an over the counter at-home rapid test, use it as close to your gathering as possible. If you test positive, no matter what kind of test, stay home," the state says.
According to the New York Times, which cites a New York University nursing professor, vaccinated people who become infected with the coronavirus "tend to present with headache, congestion, sinus pressure and sinus pain, while unvaccinated patients are more likely to have shortness of breath and cough, along with flulike symptoms."
If omicron behaves in Minnesota similarly to how it has behaved in other parts of the world, then it could be a matter of weeks before the delta variant, which had been dominant in Minnesota since the summer, is completely replaced. According to NBC New York, omicron went from being estimated as fewer than 5% of all new cases on Dec. 4 to now more than 92% of all new cases (through Dec. 18).
Fortunately, the sheer volume of cases exploding in New York City has not yet led to an explosion in hospitalizations. Meanwhile, in Minnesota, hospitalizations have dropped into the 1,400s since rising above 1,600 earlier this month. But ICU capacity remains very tight, with only 23 adult ICU beds and 8 pediatric ICU beds available in the entire state, as of Wednesday.
That capacity could be further jeopardized if skilled nursing staff are infected and have to quarantine for 10 days.