The COVID kraken has not (yet) been released in Minnesota

a doctor at a hospital
Riverwood Healthcare Center Chief Medical Officer and emergency room physician David Taylor talks about health care,
Derek Montgomery for MPR News | 2022

Last year kicked off with a huge surge in COVID-19 cases, driven by a new, highly transmissible variant called omicron. Since then, several omicron subvariants have proliferated and this year is kicking off with the rapid growth of one such offspring that some are now calling “the kraken.”

In an email update, the Minnesota Department of Health reports that the kraken, more technically known as subvariant XBB.1.5, “has been detected, but in a very limited number of clinical samples.”

While the Metropolitan Council’s analysis of wastewater is not yet distinguishing XBB from the specific XBB.1.5 subvariant, they are reporting a doubling in XBB, stating: “XBB made up 15% of the viral RNA entering [the Metro wastewater treatment plant] last week, nearly doubling the previous week’s level of 8%.”  

If Minnesota follows the pattern of other parts of the country we may see continued growth of XBB.1.5, and COVID-19 cases.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s tracking of COVID variants, which relies on multi-state regions, the prevalence of XBB.1.5 in the northeast (Region 1) grew from only one percent of cases in mid-November to 75 percent of cases at the end of December. Over that same time span that region’s case load grew by 80 percent. 

It is unclear whether XBB.1.5 will live up to the destructive reputation of its namesake, but with COVID’s continued circulation, most notably in China since it dropped the “zero COVID” policy, it seems inevitable that Minnesota will see upticks in new COVID varietals in weeks and months to come.  

In more optimistic news about infectious diseases, the health department reports that hospitalizations for neither flu nor RSV have bounced back up. Both levels were steady over the past week, and they are down substantially from the early season peaks that were hamstringing the state’s hospitals in November.

Three other things to know from the latest data about COVID-19 in Minnesota: 

  1. No post-holiday jump in cases, hospitalizations, deaths or vaccinations evident (yet)

  2. The COVID-19 load in Metro wastewater is down 22 percent in recent weeks, but remains elevated since mid-November.

  3. Seventy-two percent of Minnesotans live in “medium-risk” counties according to the CDC’s latest COVID community level ratings.

No post-holiday jump in cases, hospitalizations, deaths or vaccinations evident (yet) 

The Minnesota Department of Health’s “Situation Update for COVID-19” weekly data release on Thursdays includes preliminary — and typically underreported — daily case and hospitalization counts through Wednesday of the current week, and confirmed data through the prior Thursday.

That means that the most recent confirmed case and hospitalization data are reported through Dec. 29, which is likely too early to see any uptick in COVID activity that may have resulted from Christmas and other holiday gatherings throughout the state.

In addition, data gathering itself is impacted by the holidays. For example, only 242 cases are reported for Dec. 25 — less than one-third the number reported three days earlier. For that reason, we are not relying on the typical seven-day averages this week. Instead, we are providing a three-day, Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday, comparison to help provide a picture of recent trends in cases and hospitalizations.

The most recent three-day averages show only a slight increase in cases and virtually no change in hospitalizations. Both continue to be down from the bump in COVID-19 activity just after Thanksgiving.

COVID-19 mortality data lags back to Dec. 15 and is less influenced by holiday data interruptions. The most recent seven-day average shows 7.6 Minnesotans dying from COVID-19 every day, down slightly from an average of 8.9 the previous week, but very similar to the trend that has hovered between 3 and 10 deaths per day since mid-May.

COVID deaths in Minnesota
An average of just under eight people per day died from COVID-19 during the week ending Dec. 15.
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

As of Jan. 3, 22.5 percent of Minnesotans are up to date on their COVID-19 vaccinations. Not much changed from last week. Over the past week up-to-date vaccination rates increased by half a percentage point or less for all age groups, only slightly more for Minnesotans age 65 or older. 

COVID vaccination rates in MN by age
As of Jan. 3, 22.5 percent of Minnesotans are up-to-date on their COVID-19 vaccinations.
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

COVID levels in Metro wastewater down in recent week, but remains elevated since mid-November 

The most recent wastewater analysis in the state, from the Metropolitan Council and the University of Minnesota’s Genomic Center, shows a 22 percent decrease in viral load entering the Twin Cities Metro Plant for the week ending Jan. 2 as compared with the previous week.

The graph below shows that while COVID-19 levels measured at the Metro wastewater plant have declined slightly over the last week when looking at the seven-day rolling average, the levels remained relatively steady according to the “Olympic average.” But both averages show levels are still higher since mid-November of last year, when they began trending upward.

We’re entering the new year with levels higher than they were at the same time in 2021 but much lower than they were in 2022.

COVID load in Twin Cities metro wastewater
COVID load in Metro wastewater declined slightly over previous week, although it is still higher than it was in mid-November.
David Montgomery

COVID levels in Metro wastewater by year
COVID levels measured in wastewater entering the Metro Plant are higher at the start of 2023 than they were at the same time in 2021, but much lower than in 2022.
David Montgomery

The latest data out of the University of Minnesota’s Wastewater SARS-CoV2 Surveillance Study, continues to show mixed signals for the week ending Dec. 25.

COVID-19 levels in wastewater increased in all regions, except Central, over the prior month, especially in the study’s South West and North West regions. In the week leading up to Dec. 25, however, all regions saw a decrease in COVID-19 levels, except for the study’s South East and South West regions, which both saw increases in the viral load entering their wastewater over the week.

Five in seven Minnesotans live in counties with “medium” COVID-19 risk 

Rice County is the only one rated “high risk” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) “Community Level” ratings this week. Eight fewer counties were assigned a “medium” risk rating for the week ending Jan. 4, compared to the previous week. However, five out of seven Minnesotans live in those 30 medium-risk counties, indicating that people should remain vigilant — especially if they may be immunocompromised, or in regular contact with someone who is.

Many of the medium-risk counties have also seen elevated per capita COVID-19 hospital admissions. In the East Metro, Chisago, Washington and Dakota counties each had 14 per 100,000 COVID-19-related hospital admissions. In the southwestern part of the state, Renville, Redwood and Brown counties each had 13 per 100,000 hospital admissions for COVID-19.

NOTE: For more details and complementary maps showing county-level COVID case and hospitalization rates, click on this sentence to get to the COVID in Minnesota key data page.