While COVID-19 cases remain low in Minnesota, the level of coronavirus in the Twin Cities wastewater continues to rise with the BA.2 omicron subvariant making up the bulk of what was discovered.
The viral volume found in wastewater – a major COVID-19 barometer that has risen ahead of previous waves of infections – rose 73% over the past week, according to Metropolitan Council data released Friday. The numbers are still at their lowest levels since last summer, but officials noted that the load is now doubling around every 18 days.
“There may be a slight increase in the number of cases, but certainly not something like what we saw with the January omicron wave,” said Dr. Abinash Virk, a Mayo Clinic specialist in infectious diseases.
The BA.2 subvariant, which affects other parts of the country and the world, “seems less serious, but much, much more transmissible,” Virk said.
Samples from the Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant in St. Paul shows that the BA.2 subvariant averaged about 91% of the virus volume over the course of a week, although the latest figures were around 95%.
“The amount of [COVID] genetic material in the wastewater entering the Metro facility remains low, but it has been rising for four consecutive weeks, “Met Council researcher Steve Balogh said in a statement Friday.” The rising amount of viral material in our wastewater indicates an increasing prevalence of COVID-19 … so in that sense, the trend is worrying. “
Wastewater data has become an important pandemic measurement. Although the facility does not provide a complete picture of the state, Met Council staff noted that it serves a large area of the Twin Cities area – about 66 communities and nearly 2 million people.
While omicron subvariant cases are on the rise in Minnesota, other new variants have been discovered elsewhere in the country. Two subvariants that evolved from BA.2 are on the way in New York, and a few cases of omicron XE infections have been reported in the United States.
That proliferation of subvariants will continue, Virk said.
“It’s a brand new virus that’s developing very fast,” she said. “And at some point, it might stabilize, and we’ll go back to living life as normal with the help of vaccinations.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced this week that it is extending the crisis situation for coronavirus, which has been in place for two years, by another 90 days. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday it would extend the federal transportation mask mandate for 15 days until May 3rd.
“The CDC continues to monitor the proliferation of the Omicron variant, particularly the BA.2 subvariant, which now accounts for more than 85% of U.S. cases,” the agency said in a statement. “The CDC Mask Order remains in force, while the CDC assesses the potential impact of the increase in cases of serious illness, including hospitalizations and deaths, and the capacity of the healthcare system.”
COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths have remained relatively low in Minnesota.
The Minnesota Department of Health reported seven deaths Thursday, bringing the state’s total COVID deaths to 12,464. There were 205 COVID admissions on Thursday, of which 25 were in intensive care. Admissions have been low in the past month and well below a high of 1,629 on January 14, when omicron rose in the state.
“We see the amount of virus circulating is starting to creep up again,” said Kathy Como-Sabetti, COVID epidemiologist section manager for the Minnesota Department of Health. “But fortunately, we do not see a similar increase in hospitalizations, and we hope that with many protected through vaccination and previous infection, that will continue to be the case.”
The Ministry of Health reported 877 COVID-19 cases on Thursday. Tracking cases has become more difficult in Minnesota as people choose to use home test kitwhich does not require results to be reported to the state.
The state also reported from Thursday that 49% of Minnesota residents 5 years and older have been updated on their shots, meaning they have received all the doses they are eligible to receive. Almost 75% have received at least one dose.
In late March, the Food and Drug Administration approved an additional dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine for persons aged 50 and over.
Como-Sabetti and Virk urged people to get the vaccine and boosters as soon as they are eligible, and to follow public health guidelines, such as staying home when they are sick.
“There will be a small increase and people have an opportunity to get their vaccination and get additional protection,” Virk said, noting that a person’s infection can wave over a community. “The whole domino can be prevented if people take precautions.”