Minnesota continues to have low incidence of new COVID-19 infections, but the cases being diagnosed are increasingly caused by the latest version of the highly contagious omicron variant.
Data from the State Department of Health show that omicron has been the predominant cause of infection since January. The latest data from the Metropolitan Council show that the new “stealth omicron” strain of the variant, also referred to as BA.2, now accounts for about 40 percent of coronavirus genetic material in Twin Cities wastewater.
State-wide data from early March showed that BA.2 was the source of about 10 percent of cases, health officials said. They noted that variant monitoring lags behind actual infections.
The new omicron strain was referred to as “stealth” because it was not as easy to detect as previous variants. It does not affect testing to see if anyone is sick, just to find out which version of the virus made them sick.
The original omicron strain drove infection rates to unprecedented levels in January, before cases dropped dramatically. The BA.2 strain of omicron is now driving cases up in Europe, but it is unclear whether it will cause an increase here.
While omicron is highly contagious and has shown the ability to infect people who have been fully vaccinated with a booster, health officials say vaccines still provide significant protection against hospitalization and death.
Breakthrough infections now account for about 37 percent of the more than 1 million new cases since vaccination began over a year ago. Of the 373,877 breakthrough cases, 10,271 have been hospitalized and 1,879 people have died.
Vaccine protection decreases after five months, and boosters are now recommended for all 12 years and older.
Minnesota reported 538 new infections on Friday, bringing the state’s pandemic total to 1,424,613 cases since March 2020. Test positivity has dropped to below 3 percent for the first time since July.
Hospital admissions also remain low with 284 patients currently in need of care, including 40 in critical condition. Hospital capacity, driven by staff shortages, is recovering but still very limited in parts of the state, including the Twin Cities subway.
The number of deaths has also dropped with nine more deaths reported Friday, bringing the death toll to 12,321 since the pandemic started. The most recently reported deaths were individuals ranging in age from 50s to 70s, with eight living in private homes and one being in long-term care.
Health authorities continue to call for vaccinations, saying they are the best protection against serious illness and help slow the spread of the virus.
Minnesota has administered nearly 9.5 million doses of vaccines, including 2.17 million boosters. About 66 percent of the state’s 5.7 million people have completed their first series of shots, and about two-thirds of them have received boosters.