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REGIONAL- Last year, Minnesotans and the rest of the country got used to the COVID Omicron variant spawning offspring after offspring, with each successive subvariant seemingly more capable of …
REGIONAL- Last year, Minnesotans and the rest of the country got used to the COVID Omicron variant spawning offspring after offspring, with each successive subvariant seemingly more capable of avoiding vaccine or disease-induced immunity.
And now what’s been deemed the most contagious variant to date by the World Health Organization, XXB.1.5, has established a tiny foothold in Minnesota, raising the specter of yet another possible surge in cases. XXB.1.5 is estimated to be twice as infectious as any previous variant by health researchers.
The targets of a special COVID booster released last September, BA.5 and BA.4, have disappeared almost entirely from the Center for Disease Control’s variant tracking list after being the leading causes of infections in late summer and fall. XBB.1.5 now accounts for 28 percent of COVID cases nationwide, according to the CDC, but stark regional differences attest to its potential to dominate the COVID variant landscape in quick order.
Seventy-two percent of the COVID cases in the New York and New England region are now attributed to XBB.1.5, with the projection it could soon be as high as 86 percent. It took only six weeks for XBB.1.5 to go from one percent of cases to the mid-70s. Much smaller but quickly escalating rates of XBB.1.5 are to be found further south along the East Coast and on through Florida to Texas. Rates in the rest of the country, including Minnesota, are well below the national average, but based on past history and XBB.1.5’s unique mutations that is expected to change soon.
On Monday, Minnesota Department of Health Public Information Officer Garry Bowman provided the Timberjay with the state’s most recent estimates of variant distribution from Jan. 3, and true to pandemic-long form, Minnesota’s scenario lags behind that of other regions, but reflects tendencies that have already occurred elsewhere.
Of note is that while BA.5 has accounted for about 40 percent of cases since the first week of November, recent genetic sequencing for the latest report put the percentage of cases at 28 percent, reflecting the decline seen elsewhere. Taking its place as the dominant variant of the moment is BQ.1.1, comprising 34 percent of cases.
And as for XBB.1.5?
“In Minnesota, XBB.1.5 has been detected, but in a very limited number of clinical samples to this point,” Bowman said. “I think the trends we are seeing will remain in place, with BA.5 continuing to recede and BQ.1.1 continuing to grow along with the XBBs.”
Based on the New York/New England experience, Minnesota health officials will be on the watch for an XBB.1.5 takeover through at least February.
An encouraging sign thus far is that while XBB.1.5 is more contagious, the resulting illness appears to be no more severe than other recent variants. While more initial and breakthrough infections are anticipated, it remains to be seen what the actual effects may be on hospitalizations and deaths.
Free tests ending
Since last April, Minnesotans have ordered 2.5 million free at-home COVID tests from MDH, and on Monday announced “the last chance” for people to order four additional free tests through the online ordering program.
“Testing is essential in getting the proper treatment to those who need it and preventing the spread of COVID-19, and the state’s free online ordering program made it simple for Minnesotans in every corner of the state to easily access critical testing,” said new health commissioner Dr. Brooke Cunningham.
Tests can be ordered online at https://mn.gov/covid19/get-tested/at-home/index.jsp.
Minnesotans can also place orders through the MDH COVID-19 Public Hotline at 1-833-431-2053 on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Tuesday and Thursday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Language assistance is available.
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