Signs point to COVID concerns in southern Minnesota

A woman spits into a vial.
Chalyce Brickford spits into a vial as she takes a COVID-19 saliva test Monday, Nov. 23, 2020, at a testing site at Ridgeview Elementary School in Bloomington.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News 2020

Not everyone who gets COVID these days is avoiding hospitalization. Far from it. But President Joe Biden did just announce testing negative after five days of isolation during which he claims to have worked at full capacity. On Wednesday he stated, “my symptoms were mild, my recovery was quick, and I’m feeling great.”

This compares to former President Donald Trump’s three-day hospitalization with COVID when he was in office. Different people, likely getting different strains of COVID-19, but as Biden suggested, it still might be at least symbolic of the protections offered by vaccines and improved COVID-19 treatment.

Four things to know: 

1) COVID-19 continues slow burn in Minnesota 

2) After downward trend, vaccines hold on to some effectiveness  

3) Wastewater data raises concerns in the state’s south 

4) CDC risk ratings highlight seven Minnesota counties, including five in the state’s south 

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COVID-19 continues slow burn in Minnesota  

We’re looking forward to the day we can report (hopefully) a consistent downturn in COVID metrics and call this a COVID mesa instead of a COVID plateau. But for now, flat metrics are the reality, and the possibility remains that things will get worse before they get better.

Cases remain approximately where they’ve been since early June, with a slight uptick in recent days. As always, a reminder that with more at-home testing and less reporting of tests, it’s best to use case counts to understand the general trajectory of the current situation, but not to compare numbers with previous waves.  

Minnesota COVID cases by year
Cases remain around where they've been since late May.
David Montgomery

New hospitalizations are also broadly unchanged over the last couple of months. After a few weeks of a slow downward trend in ICU hospitalizations, those are back to early June levels.  

ICU and non-ICU COVID hospitalizations in MN
Hospitalizations remain around where they've been since late May.
David Montgomery

Deaths are similarly about the same that they’ve been since mid-May.

MN COVID deaths by year
Deaths remain around where they've been since late May.
David Montgomery

After downward trend, vaccines hold on to some effectiveness

Here’s something that has changed a bit since April. After vaccine protection seemed to be in free fall during early 2022, it has leveled off and, in some facets, has rebounded. The next graph shows how many more times common a case, hospitalization or death is for the unvaccinated compared to those who are either fully vaccinated or boosted.

Case data should probably be taken with a huge grain of salt given changes in at-home testing and reporting, but the hospitalization and death data should be more reliable.

covid prevalence by vaccination status
Despite a steep drop off in vaccine protection during the winter 2022 wave, being boosted provides protection against hospitalization and death compared to being unvaccinated.
David Montgomery

There are some key things to keep in mind, though, when interpreting this data. As the department of health notes: Minnesotans who are older, have underlying health conditions, or work in high-risk settings are more likely to have a primary series and more likely to have gotten their booster shots. This means more people in the vaccinated with a primary series and vaccinated with a primary series plus booster populations are at increased risk of developing, becoming hospitalized, or dying from COVID-19 because of their age, health conditions, or types of exposures.” 

Breaking down hospitalizations by age does in fact reveal interesting differences among age groups. Vaccination among younger people has had waning influence, but the rate of decline has recently slowed. Meanwhile, apparent vaccine protection for middle-aged (50-64 year olds) Minnesotans has continued to fall. But for those 65 and up, protection seems to have gone up after seeing a low point in the spring.

covid hospitalizations by age and vaccination status
After a steep drop off in vaccine protection during the winter 2022 wave, it has increased again for older Minnesotans.
David Montgomery

If you’d like to get vaccinated or boosted, check out our guide here.

Wastewater data raises concerns in the state’s south 

Five percent increase over the previous week. That is the report from the Metropolitan Council and the University of Minnesota’s Genomic Center Friday regarding COVID-19 levels detected in wastewater sampling from the state’s largest treatment plant, for the week ending July 25.  

They also note that omicron subvariant BA.5 accounts for 79 percent of the COVID-19 that they found — and that BA.2.75 has not shown up yet.

Friday’s reported increase comes on the heels of Wednesday’s note from the same project, indicating that COVID levels had decreased by 8 percent from the week ending July 11 to the week ending July 18. In fact, this latest increase is the first reported since the three percent increase reported for the last week in June. 

COVID load in Twin Cities metro wastewater 7-29-2022
Recent trends in levels of COVID-19 detected at the Minnesota's largest wastewater treatment plant.
David H. Montgomery

The University of Minnesota’s Wastewater SARS-CoV2 Surveillance Study also shows a slight increase — 4 percent — in Twin Cities Metro-area treatment plants.  

The data from this project shows much more notable increases in wastewater from treatment plants in Lyons and Nobles counties as well as those in Blue Earth, LeSueur, McLeod and Nicollet counties. Both the South West and South Central regions, where these counties are located, are seeing significant rises in COVID-19 levels over the past month, including jumps in most recent weeks, ending July 17.

In a change from the past several updates, the only region showing a weekly decline is South East Minnesota. 

CDC risk ratings highlight 7 Minnesota counties, including 5 in the state’s south

According to the CDC’s weekly “Community Level” guidance, released Thursday afternoon, those in Cottonwood, Hubbard, Jackson, Martin, Nobles, Olmsted and Wadena counties should mask up when in crowded or indoor settings.   

Residents of 38 other counties — including the state’s most populous county, Hennepin — are categorized as having medium risk.

As usual, the CDC’s parallel Community Transmission map raises even more concern, with 80 of Minnesota’s 87 counties having case rates exceeding their “high” transmission threshold of 100 cases per 100,000 over a one-week period. Weekly case rates are more than three times this threshold in Koochiching, Nobles and Todd Counties.