REGIONAL- Concerned that Minnesota could soon mirror a nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, state health officials on Monday intensified their calls for people to get …
REGIONAL- Concerned that Minnesota could soon mirror a nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, state health officials on Monday intensified their calls for people to get vaccinated.
State health commissioner Jan Malcolm and state infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann were back in front of the press on Monday for the first time in nearly two months, to try to jumpstart a statewide vaccination effort that has tapered off significantly in recent weeks. It’s left numerous areas of the state vulnerable to the highly transmissible delta virus variant.
“The delta variant is causing three out of every four COVID cases in Minnesota at this point in time,” Malcolm said, “and that means trouble for people who aren’t protected because they never got vaccinated. The problem here is very much a problem of unvaccinated people getting exposed to an extremely contagious and dangerous virus. That’s what’s driving the case numbers, hospitalizations, and deaths right now.”
“It’s really a new thing that we’re dealing with — not the same old COVID that you think of from a year ago,” Ehresmann said. “It was only a few weeks ago that it (delta) represented less than one percent of the cases that we were sequencing. It is now 75 percent. This particular variant is taking over in terms of the proportion of cases.”
Minnesota has one of the lowest infection rates in the country right now, but the delta variant is driving a significant increase in the number of daily cases reported by MDH. On Monday, the state reported 424 new COVID-19 infections.
“We were routinely seeing daily COVID cases falling below 100 new cases per day a month ago,” Malcolm said.
Epidemiologists estimate that the delta variant is at least 50 percent more contagious than the predominant variant in March, the UK variant, which was itself 50 percent more transmissible than the original coronavirus strain. The delta-driven surge in other parts of the country has led some political leaders to reinstate indoor masking requirements and restrictions on business activities. The Centers for Disease Control is now recommending both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals wear masks indoors if they live in areas with significant or high spread.
Malcolm noted that there are no plans to reimplement restrictions in Minnesota at this time, but that the best way to insure against future restrictions is for the unvaccinated to get the shot.
The current surge is projected to intensify in the next few months, leading to an expected peak in October of 60,000 new cases and 850 deaths a day nationally, according to the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub, a consortium of researchers helping the CDC track the pandemic’s trajectory.
The projection is a synthesis of 10 different models and assumes in its most likely scenario that 70 percent of eligible people are vaccinated, which is well below current levels. It also assumes a transmission rate of 60 percent for the delta variant. Currently, only Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Vermont have reached a 70 percent vaccination level, while 14 states are still below 50 percent. As of Tuesday, 66.7 percent of Minnesotans age 12 and over had received at least one vaccine dose.
In a worst-case projection, about 240,000 people would be infected and about 4,000 people would die each day at the peak, nearly equivalent to the nationwide rates last winter.
Malcolm noted that some have now started calling this a “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” and Ehresmann reinforced that over 99.9 percent of people vaccinated in Minnesota have not contracted COVID-19.
“We have had a total of 3,886 vaccine breakthrough cases documented in Minnesota among over three million fully vaccinated Minnesotans. That’s a breakthrough rate of less than one-tenth of a percent,” she said. “Vaccines protect against COVID-19 disease, including the variants. And they’re especially good at protecting against severe disease from COVID-19.”
Two developments have prompted state officials to closely monitor what’s happening around the country relative to the fast-approaching new school year.
On Monday, the CDC issued a new recommendation that all school students, teachers, and staff wear masks to lessen the spread of COVID-19. Meanwhile, Ehresmann said that a hoped-for emergency use authorization of vaccines for children under 12 years old likely won’t be forthcoming until late in the fall.
First-dose vaccination rates among those 12 to 15 years old are the lowest of any eligible age group in the state at 40 percent. To start school fully vaccinated, which is considered to be two weeks after receiving a second shot of the Pfizer vaccine, the only one approved for those under 16, students needed to get their first dose this week.
Early in the pandemic, children were believed to be less susceptible to the coronavirus than adults. Subsequent controlled studies have instead found that the incidence of infection is comparable across groups age five and up, according to the CDC. Children have shown less severe health effects when infected with prior coronavirus strains, but Ehresmann said there is evidence that the delta variant may cause more severe illness.
Malcolm said MDH and the state Department of Education are working closely together to monitor developments and develop appropriate guidelines for schools, and that unlike the safe schools requirements of last year they were looking at recommendations, not mandates, leaving it up to local districts to decide the best courses of action for their conditions.
Ehresmann said that the best way to protect unvaccinated children is for people who are eligible to get vaccinated.
“The best way we can surround those kids with protection is for the rest of the community to be as highly vaccinated as possible,” she said.
On Wednesday, state officials recommended that schools follow the new CDC guidelines for masking.