COVID-19 trends upward as new boosters arrive

A sticker reading "I Got My Covid-19 Vaccine"
A sticker reading "I Got My Covid-19 Vaccine" at Brian Coyle Center in M Health Fairview in Minneapolis on Jan. 6.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

This week’s data show that COVID-19 activity continues to trend upward here in Minnesota, which makes this week’s announcement that the new COVID-19 boosters are available all the more welcome.  

Newly-released tests of the boosters so far suggest it is largely effective against the most commonly circulating COVID-19 variants (EG5 and FL 1.5.1) as well as the emerging BA.2.86 variant, even though it was specifically designed to combat a variant that has since waned (XBB.1.5).  

A review of the emerging scientific testing by medical researcher Dr. Eric Topol suggests that the new booster is much more effective against today’s versions of COVID-19 compared to either the original COVID-19 vaccine or the bivalent booster that was available about one year ago.  

COVID-19 boosters: How to access them in Minnesota 

To start with the news you can use, following the CDC’s announcement on Thursday, it is now possible to schedule booster shots for anyone 6 months of age or older in clinics and pharmacies throughout the state. For most, the cost of the shot is covered, at least in part, by their health insurance.

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For those without health care coverage, the Minnesota Department of Health offers the following resources:

The department also notes that most clinics that provide medical services to children in Minnesota provide free or low-cost child vaccines through the Minnesota Vaccines for Children program. 

In addition to boosters, the Minnesota Department of Health is encouraging Minnesotans to test for COVID-19 at home if they are feeling sick and is offering another round of free tests.  

How many will take advantage of the new boosters? 

At a time where vaccines have become politicized and mistrusted to the point that half of all dog owners express some level of hesitancy about getting their dogs vaccinated against rabies and other disorders, the public’s embrace of the new COVID-19 boosters is far from certain. Based on the response to the bivalent booster, introduced in Sept. 2022, demand for the new COVID-19 boosters may be muted, although less so in Minnesota. 

To date, according to the most recent CDC data, which dates back to May, only 17 percent of the U.S. population has taken advantage of the bivalent booster, including 43 percent of those age 65 or older. Minnesota, however, is among the nation’s leaders in uptake of the bivalent boosters, with the fifth-highest rate of uptake overall and fourth-highest among those age 65 or older.

More recent data from the Minnesota Department of Health, through Aug. 17, indicates that 27.4 percent of Minnesotans are up to date on their COVID-19 vaccinations, ranging from only 6 percent of the youngest eligible Minnesotans, age 6 months to 4 years, to 69 percent of those age 65 or older.

COVID-19 vaccination rates also vary considerably by race and ethnicity in Minnesota, with 30 percent of white Minnesotans up to date, compared with only 16 percent of Black Minnesotans and 13 percent of those identifying as multiracial. 

Cook County has the state’s highest COVID-19 vaccination rate (45 percent), followed by Olmsted (38 percent), Hennepin (35 percent) and Ramsey (33 percent). According to Minnesota Department of Health data, the state’s lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates are in Red Lake, Roseau and Clearwater counties, all less than 14 percent. 

If these patterns hold, it should be relatively easy for those who want to get the new booster to schedule a shot, unlike the roll-out of the initial vaccine when it was difficult to find appointments.

COVID hospitalizations continue to inch upward 

Data released Thursday by the Minnesota Department of health show yet another small increase in the number admitted to hospitals throughout the state with COVID-19. In the week ending Sept. 5, an average of 23 people were newly admitted each day, up from a daily average of 21 and 22 in the two previous weeks.

While this near-plateauing of hospitalizations does not signal a surge, neither does it signal a retreat in COVID-19 activity back to the pandemic low averages of 10 or fewer admissions per day throughout most of June and July.

COVID-19 levels in wastewater also continue to rise 

According to the University of Minnesota’s Wastewater SARS-CoV2 Surveillance Study, COVID-19 levels continue to rise throughout the state in recent weeks, although the levels remain low relative to those recorded in early 2023. The only small decrease registered in the study’s recent measurements comes from the South Central region’s weekly change reading. However, that region, along with all others, saw COVID-19 levels more than double over the four-week period.

The study’s North East region — which includes samples from six wastewater treatment plants in Crow Wing, Koochiching, Pine and St. Louis counties — shows a particularly large jump over the past four weeks. Note, however, that the region’s wastewater had been registering extremely low COVID-19 levels throughout the summer, which makes even small increases look large in percentage terms. 

One-week changes are mostly small, indicating plateauing in many of the study’s regions throughout the state. This is reflected in many of the graphs’ plateaus. The North West Region is the one exception to this overall trend, experiencing a 77 percent increase over the prior week.   

The Wastewater SARS-CoV2 Surveillance Study’s Metro region includes 13 treatment plants located in Anoka, Chisago, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey, Scott, Sherburne and Washington counties. A population of 2,818,197 is served by the sewer lines connected to these plants.

As earlier reported, a key source of wastewater reporting, the Metropolitan Council’s collaboration with the University of Minnesota’s Genomic Center, stopped operations earlier this month. That effort provided easily accessible daily data on COVID-19 levels and variants from the state’s single largest plant, the Metro wastewater treatment plant in St. Paul.

Sampling from that plant continues to be reported into the University of Minnesota’s parallel Wastewater SARS-CoV2 Surveillance Study. The exact types of measurements provided by each study are different, and to date the University is not breaking out the Metro plant data in a way that would allow a continuous trend line with the Metropolitan Council’s data (which dates back to Nov. 2020 as opposed to data we have tracked from the SARS-CoV2 study dating back to April 2022).

Still, as our analysis below shows, the two methods of surveillance do largely mirror one another — even if the SARS-CoV2 Surveillance Study’s data shows a less dramatic uptick in recent weeks than suggested by the trendline from the Metropolitan Council’s data.

One final note: Regular readers may recall that several weeks ago we reported on studies showing a high level of COVID-19 transmission among white-tailed deer. Unfortunately, with deer hunting season upon us, those findings have been further confirmed.

As reported by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, a recent study out of Ohio found that almost one-quarter of 1,500 deer sampled showed evidence of being infected with COVID-19. Without saying how it may have occurred, the study estimated that there had been 12 crossover cases of human to deer infection. Unfortunately, this raises the specter of potential additional transmission among deer, as well as potential crossover from animals to humans.