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The daily coronavirus update: driven by variants, Minnesota case numbers tick upward

The Minnesota Department of Health has found 317 cases of the B117 variant in the state, up from 250 cases reported Monday, as well as 73 cases of two strains that were identified in California and three cases of the B1351 variant first identified in South Africa. 

COVID-19
COVID-19
Photo: CDC/Alissa Eckert

MinnPost provides updates on coronavirus in Minnesota Sunday through Friday. The information is published following a press phone call with members of the Walz administration or after the release of daily COVID-19 figures by the Minnesota Department of Health.

Here are the latest updates from March 19, 2021:

502,893 cases; 6,771 deaths

Nine more Minnesotans have died of COVID-19, the Minnesota Department of Health said Friday, for a total of 6,771.

Of the people whose deaths were announced Friday, one was in their 90s, three were in their 80s, two were in their 70s, two were in their 60s and one was in their 40s. Three of the nine people whose deaths were announced Friday were residents of long-term care facilities.

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Deaths have declined this week. The state averaged about 5.7 deaths over the last seven days, which is the lowest the seven-day rolling average has been since Sept. 9. (This does not account for a backlog of 138 deaths reported in one day by the state March 9.)

MDH also said Friday there have been 502,893 total cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota. That number is up 1,435 from the total announced on Thursday and is based on 40,005 new tests. The seven-day positive case average, which lags by a week, is 4.2 percent. The rate has increased for several days now from a low of 3.5 percent, though it’s below a 5-percent threshold the state considers a concerning sign of disease spread.

As of Wednesday, the most recent data available, 1,337,892 Minnesotans, roughly 24 percent of the population, have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. That’s up 34,682 from data reported Thursday, and represents a rebound from slow vaccination numbers earlier this week.

Now 788,495 Minnesotans are fully vaccinated, meaning they have received two doses of a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The state says 77.5 percent of Minnesotans age 65 and older have received at least one dose of a vaccine.

The most recent data available show 74 Minnesotans are hospitalized in intensive care with COVID-19, and 242 are in the hospital with COVID-19 not in intensive care. Hospitalizations have increased this week. On Monday, the state reported 59 people in the ICU with COVID-19 and 201 in the hospital but not in the ICU. You can find more information about Minnesota’s current ICU usage and capacity here.

More information on cases can be found here.

Variants are driving an increase in cases, MDH says

The recent uptick in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations is driven in part by variants of the disease that are more transmissible than earlier dominant strains in Minnesota, health officials said Friday.

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The state has opened up more of public life, allowing greater capacity in restaurants, gyms and other gathering places. MDH infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann said more interactions tied to reopening aren’t solely to blame for the current increase in cases.

“It’s not so much the activity as it is the introduction of a much more transmissible virus into that environment,” Ehresmann said.

Ehresmann said in “hot spots” around the state experiencing rapid case growth, the state has found the B117 variant circulating. Some of those hot spots include the southwestern Twin Cities metro, as well as Carver, Scott, Blue Earth and St. Louis counties. The B117 variant was first identified in the U.K.

“Yes, we definitely acknowledge that the increase in transmission that we’re seeing has definitely been tied with where we’re seeing the circulation of B117,” Ehresmann said. “I think that it’s fair to say those two things are going hand in hand.”

Ehresmann said the state has found 317 cases of the B117 variant, up from 250 cases reported Monday, as well as 73 cases of two strains that were identified in California and three cases of the B1351 variant first identified in South Africa.

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But since the state doesn’t check every positive case to determine the strain of COVID-19, there are likely more variant cases in the state. MDH is planning to ramp up its genome sequencing efforts to better find variants in Minnesota, however.

“We will likely continue to see more of this (B1117) variant and it is likely to take over as the predominant circulating strain in Minnesota and the United States,” Ehresmann said.

Variants are concerning not just because they can be more transmissible, but current vaccines aren’t as effective against some variants compared to past strains of COVID-19.

Boost in vaccine allocation coming; state makes progress on vaccinating those with high-risk conditions

Ehresmann told reporters Friday that Minnesota expects to receive 53,800 doses of the Moderna vaccine from the federal government next week, along with 74,880 doses of the Pfizer vaccine and 12,600 doses of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. That’s about an 11 percent increase from this week, according to Theo Keith at Fox 9, and these numbers don’t include vaccines sent directly to pharmacies by the federal government.

The state also expects to use 10,200 Moderna shots as first doses that were initially reserved as second doses because consistent supplies from the federal government allow the state to not save them so far ahead of time.

Last Tuesday, when Gov. Tim Walz’s administration announced it was expanding vaccine eligibility, people with significant underlying health conditions such as those in cancer treatment, as well as food processing workers, were considered top priority in the 1.8 million-person phase.

Malcolm told reporters at the time that the state could get at least one dose of vaccine to people with high-risk health conditions in roughly 10 days and to meatpacking workers in two weeks.

On Friday, Malcolm said health care providers reported getting through their list of people with particularly high-risk conditions “pretty quickly” and have now moved on to a broader category of underlying health issues.

Malcolm said she couldn’t estimate the percent of meat processing workers who have received at least one vaccine dose, but said the state is making “really good progress.”

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MDH’s coronavirus website: https://www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/coronavirus/index.html

MDH’s phone line for COVID-19 questions, Mon.-Fri. 9 a.m. to 4 p.m: 651-297-1304