In the last week, Minnesota has reported fewer than 200 new positive cases of COVID-19 per day, and case counts are lower than they’ve been since testing became widely available.
After more than a year of living with COVID-19, summer is, in many ways, starting to look pretty normal as more Minnesotans are vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus.
“We are in the midst of what is becoming an incredible public health success,” said Dr. Andrew Olson, director of hospital medicine at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center. “As we look at the number of cases in Minnesota; the hospitalized patients with COVID are well under 200, and in our health system, the lowest numbers we’ve seen since the beginning of the pandemic.”
Yet people are still getting COVID-19. While less than 200 cases a day may be small compared to coronavirus caseloads over the past year, it still adds up: People are still being hospitalized, albeit at record lows, and dying of the virus.
Who’s still getting COVID?
The age distribution of COVID-19 cases reported to the Minnesota Department of Health in the most recent full week of data, the last week of May, shows that people of all ages are still getting COVID-19.
But some age groups are getting COVID-19 more than others: in the oldest age groups, where vaccine coverage is the highest — 90 percent of Minnesotans age 65 and older have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine — the caseloads are the lowest.
“In that age group, we’ve got good coverage, but we’re still seeing disease in the people who aren’t vaccinated,” said Kris Ehresmann, MDH’s director of infectious disease.
Cases were the highest among kids and young adults.
That comes as no surprise, considering vaccine coverage: the younger people are in Minnesota, the less likely they are to be vaccinated, and no vaccine has been approved for children under the age of 12 yet.
In the 18 to 49 age group, just 56 percent of people have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Among 16 and 17 year olds; 47 percent, and in 12 to 15 year olds; 33 percent.
While unvaccinated people make up the vast majority of Minnesota’s COVID-19 cases these days, there are breakthrough cases in which a person contracts COVID-19 after being fully vaccinated.
These cases remain rare, though, Ehresmann said. There have been 2,868 of them confirmed, which represent 0.1 percent of fully vaccinated people.
“There’s always going to be a miniscule amount of people who don’t have the same immunologic response to the vaccine,” Ehresmann said. While these cases have happened across the age range, they tend to skew older, with the median age at 52.
And in most cases where breakthroughs happen, the patients get significantly less sick than they might have if they hadn’t been vaccinated in the first place, Olson said.
COVID deaths and data issues
While cases and hospitalizations in Minnesota have dropped, deaths remain somewhat high, averaging about seven per day over the last week. That’s just a little below what was seen over previous weeks despite the drop in cases and hospitalizations.
Ehresmann said that deaths remain high partly because of the way they’re reported. While some of the data come in promptly, others might lag by a month or so as MDH waited for the necessary lab tests or other information to verify cases.
“We verify every single death to make sure that it meets the criteria for being a COVID death, Ehresmann said. “In the world of [epidemiology], getting a death reported within six months is a reasonable timeframe. But in the mind of the public, they’re thinking when we report a death that it happened yesterday.”
She cautioned, similarly, about reading too much into the current case positivity average. At 2.1 percent, this measure of the prevalence of COVID-19 is the lowest it’s been since the pandemic began, and less than half the 5 percent threshold considered cause for concern.
While disease prevalence is much lower now than it was months ago, the case positivity threshold is likely less accurate than it once was because far fewer people are getting tested for COVID-19.
Experts expect people to continue getting COVID-19, be hospitalized and die until many more are vaccinated against the virus. The vaccination effort is especially critical since every transmission is an opportunity for a mutation that could thwart the vaccines.
As the vaccination drive continues, Olson said Minnesotans should feel empowered to ask people they’re in contact with whether they’re vaccinated when making decisions about attending or hosting gatherings.
“I think it’s perfectly appropriate to ask, if we’re going to have people over for a dinner party … if we’re going to get our kids to play together,” he said. “And that’s awkward, but I think it’s being safe.”
Furthermore, Olson encouraged Minnesotans who are vaccinated to talk about it.
“We know that there’s a long history of understanding why people choose to take vaccines and why people don’t. And it’s quite clear for many people who choose not to take vaccines or have questions about them, what changes people’s minds isn’t an informational pamphlet or even information coming from a physician,” he said — it’s more often people in their communities talking about vaccination and answering their questions.