Mixed signals on COVID trends, new free telehealth treatment for Minnesotans with COVID

A doctor and nurse talk in a hallway.
COVID levels increased 11 percent for the week ending Dec. 19 compared to week before, according to the most recent wastewater analysis in the state from the Metropolitan Council and the University of Minnesota’s Genomic Center.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Several COVID-19 indicators suggest we’re entering the year-end holidays in a better place than the last two years. Cases are down overall — as are hospitalizations — but COVID load in wastewater is not. It’s also worth noting that the extreme rise in omicron-related hospitalizations came just after the New Year in 2022.  

Thankfully, flu and RSV hospitalizations are down from their peaks a few weeks ago, although it’s possible they could rise again. Bed usage data also reflects a slight easing of pressure on hospitals, with a decline in pediatric bed use, as well as a stemming of the increase in adult ICU bed use seen in Greater Minnesota last week.  

Wastewater and hospitalization data signal that Beltrami County is an area where residents may want to take more precautions this holiday season. We also look at county-level changes in case rates to help you make decisions about gatherings and activities.  

If you do test positive for COVID, a new free telehealth program is available to all Minnesotans to help get fast treatment options delivered to your home.   

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“We know that accessing therapeutics within five days of developing symptoms of COVID-19 can greatly improve outcomes and help Minnesotans to avoid severe illness or hospitalization,” said Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm in a press release. The hope is this service will reduce barriers to accessing treatments quickly. For more on the program and how to access it, see the health department website. 

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to go down

Officially reported cases were down in all regions of the state in the last week’s worth of data.  

weekly covid-19 cases by Minnesota region
Overall, cases were down across Minnesota regions in the last week.
David Montgomery

Cases are not down in all counties, however. For those wishing for a bit more granularity, here is a map showing how case rates have changed in the last week by county, according to the CDC’s data. Kittson, Jackson and Wabasha counties showed the highest increases.  

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 are also down this week. The most recent seven-day average of intensive care unit admissions (for the week ending Dec. 15) was nine ICU hospitalizations per day — the first time it’s dropped below 10 since Nov. 17. Non-ICU COVID admissions fell slightly following last week’s more dramatic decline. 

ICU and non ICU COVID hospitalizations in MN
Both ICU and non-ICU hospitalizations are down after a post-Thanksgiving increase.
David Montgomery

Just as last week, we haven’t seen the jump in deaths that we sometimes have following increased hospitalizations. Nonetheless, despite being much lower than this time in previous years, Minnesota is still averaging seven to eight COVID-19 deaths per day. 

Minnesota COVID-19 deaths by year
COVID-19 deaths remain at a somewhat higher plateau compared to the summer and early fall, but are still well below deaths in previous years at this time.
David Montgomery

Highest COVID-19 levels in Twin Cities wastewater since May 

COVID levels increased 11 percent for the week ending Dec. 19 compared to week before, according to the most recent wastewater analysis in the state from the Metropolitan Council and the University of Minnesota’s Genomic Center. According to an email from the Met Council, that’s, “84 percent higher than it was five weeks ago and the highest it’s been since May 10-16, which corresponded to the peak of the BA.2 wave.”   

The last four days of data show a downturn in the COVID load, but it remains to be seen if that trend will continue. BQ.1 subvariants remain the dominant strain and are still on the rise — now making up 69 percent of the viral RNA entering the Metro Plant, up from 58 percent last week.  

COVID load in Twin Cities metro wastewater since 2020
COVID load in Twin Cities metro wastewater was the highest it has been since May.
David Montgomery
Recent COVID load in Twin Cities metro wastewater
COVID load was overall higher this week compared to the week before, although it did drop for the last four days of the week.
David Montgomery

The latest data out of the University of Minnesota’s Wastewater SARS-CoV2 Surveillance Study, which tracked data from seven regions through Dec. 11, shows a mix of increases and decreases in COVID load by region from the week before. All regions are up compared to a month ago.  

The North West region of the study, which samples from wastewater plants in Beltrami, Clay and Pennington counties, had the highest monthly increase at 221 percent, but saw a decline in the last week of data of 13 percent. Also notable is South Central, which increased 120 percent over the last month and is still on the rise with a 20 percent increase over the last week of data.  

Beltrami and Clearwater counties rated with high COVID-19 community levels by CDC  

Two Minnesota counties — Beltrami and Clearwater — are rated as having high community levels of COVID-19 by CDC this week. That’s up from zero counties last week. Hospitalizations are highest in those two counties, at 25 COVID admissions per 100,000 residents. The medium category also increased by two this week — from 33 to 35.  

The CDC’s “COVID-19 transmission” ratings are back up after a modest dip last week. Those ratings show 61 Minnesota counties as having “high transmission,” exceeding the CDC’s threshold of 100 cases per 100,000. There are six counties where case rates exceed 200 cases per 100,000: Big Stone, Chippewa, Jackson, Lincoln, Todd and Traverse.