Health officials link St. Louis County's COVID-19 case uptick to new variants
Pandemic fatigue is also suspected to have contributed to recent case growth.
Minnesota health officials have linked COVID-19 case upticks in three parts of the state, including St. Louis County, to the more contagious B117 variant that originated in the United Kingdom.
Kris Ehresmann, the infectious disease director for the Minnesota Department of Health, said in a media call Friday that Minnesota has identified 317 B117 cases, which is likely to become the dominant strain across the state and country. The state has also identified 73 cases of a variant first identified in California, three cases of the variant first identified in South Africa and two cases of the Brazil variant.
"We're in a race between the variants and the vaccine, and the decisions we all make in the next few weeks will have a lot to say about the outcome of this race," Ehresmann said.
Between March 12 and 18, Aurora and Ely in central St. Louis County have seen higher case counts than usual for small towns. Aurora logged 21 cases while Ely recorded 15. Fifteen students of Mesabi East School were confirmed to have COVID-19 in the first two weeks of March. Even Cook County has had as many new cases in the last week as it had in more than months prior .
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State health officials have also linked increasing case numbers in southern Minnesota's Blue Earth County as well as Scott and Carver counties in the metro region. Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said they suspect the B117 variant is linked to increasing case growth in other parts of the state as well, but they can't confirm that until they've completed whole genome sequencing on COVID-19 samples from those areas.
Currently, the state's public health lab is sequencing 300 samples a week to identify variants and plans to boost that number up to 550 samples a week by the end of the month.
"We fully expect that the more we look for it, the more we will find the variants in other parts of the state," Ehresmann said.
She likened signs of upticks to trends the state experienced in the fall before a sharp increase in cases, deaths and hospitalizations from COVID-19.
Health officials also suspect that "pandemic fatigue" has played a role in recent case growth. Erhesmann cited a study from the University of Washington that reported that the percentage of Minnesotans reporting frequent mask wearing had recently dropped from 80% to 75%. The report also suggested that if that percentage increased to 95% in the next week Minnesotans could have 140 fewer deaths by summer.
Although vaccines continue to reach more people, she warned people of the potential for transmission risk during spring breaks and any upcoming holiday gatherings. Social gatherings still need to look different, even if some of those people have been vaccinated, Ehresmann said.
The same recommendations continue to apply: Wear masks when gathering, even when outdoors, stay 6 feet apart from people of different households, stay home when sick, open windows if indoors, get tested before a gathering and lay low for 14 days before.