REGIONAL- While international attention on the COVID pandemic has focused in recent days on the possible threat posed by the newly identified omicron variant, the current Delta-driven surge in …
REGIONAL- While international attention on the COVID pandemic has focused in recent days on the possible threat posed by the newly identified omicron variant, the current Delta-driven surge in Minnesota continues to pummel the state’s hospital system.
COVID admissions increased once again last week, with 74 percent of adult intensive care units and 42 percent of non-ICU units reporting no beds available. On Tuesday, there were 1,532 patients hospitalized with COVID, up from 1,429 reported the prior week. Of those COVID patients, 343 were in ICUs.
In northeastern Minnesota, no ICU beds were available for several days last week. On Monday, there were three adult and two pediatric ICU slots open, and 27 of the region’s 92 ICU patients were being treated for COVID.
Hospital capacity will likely continue to be taxed with an anticipated post-holiday influx of new cases, which could reverse the slight downward trajectory in the number of new cases heading into the Thanksgiving holiday.
The state added 25,002 new COVID-19 cases in the seven days, between last Wednesday, Nov. 24 and Tues. Nov. 30, for an average of 3,572 new cases per day. That’s down from a daily average of 4,225 the week prior. The state’s case positivity rate also dropped to 10.6 percent as of Tuesday.
St. Louis County case numbers also have started trending downward. From a fourth-wave surge high of 183.6 in the seven-day new case average on Nov. 18, that measure dropped to 141.7 on Nov. 7, a 23-percent decrease.
Those between the ages of 40 and 70 have shouldered an increasing share of new COVID cases in the county in the most recent two weeks of data available on the county’s COVID dashboard. People in their 40s accounted for 32 new cases, those in their 50s, 24, and those in their 60s, 39. The number of cases among those birth to 19 during the same two weeks held relatively steady compared to the prior two weeks at 30.
The North Country has yet to experience the declines seen elsewhere, according to weekly case data from the Minnesota Department of Health. Ely has been the primary driver of recent case increases in the six zip codes monitored by the Timberjay. From Oct. 28 to Nov. 29, 100 new cases have been identified in Ely, with 35 of those reported just last week.
Cook, the regional zip code that has the statistically highest rate of COVID infections, added 15 new cases last week, bringing its total since Oct. 28 to 55.
Tower’s 16 new cases last week is the most reported there for a single week since mid-September. Four more cases were reported for Soudan, seven for Embarrass, and eight for Orr.
Omicron the newest concern
State Health Department Commissioner Jan Malcolm weighed in on Monday with a statement about the newly identified omicron variant of the COVID virus, first identified and reported by South African health officials on Nov. 24.
“Minnesota health officials are closely tracking international reports of a new COVID-19 variant, called omicron (B.1.1.529). The World Health Organization has named omicron a variant of concern, and scientists are working hard to learn more about its transmissibility and virulence, and how well vaccines may protect a person against it,” Malcolm said. “At this point no omicron cases have been reported in Minnesota or the United States. Fortunately, Minnesota has built one of the nation’s strongest genomic sequencing and variant surveillance systems. If an omicron variant infection is found in Minnesota, we will share that information as soon as possible.”
International response to the new variant, which is potentially more infectious than the Delta variant, was swift, with numerous countries, including the United States, imposing restrictions on travel from numerous African countries.
However, most health officials believe such travel bans will have only minimal effect, and new reports of omicron cases bear that out.
Results of sample testing in Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands reported Tuesday have revealed that the omicron variant was already circulating in those countries as many as five days before the variant was identified in South Africa. Omicron variant cases have now been identified in 23 countries, with 15 of those in Europe. Cases have also been identified in Canada, Australia, and Japan.
With a baseline of only about 1,500 total cases identified thus far, health officials are scrambling to determine what the potential impact of the omicron variant could be. Standard tests for COVID don’t identify what variant caused a specific case. Genetic testing is necessary to identify omicron, Delta, and any other COVID variant, and less than one percent of COVID tests are subjected to additional genetic testing. Since identifying the omicron variant, South African health officials have determined it is now the dominant variant in the country, but at this point it can’t be determined if that’s a result of being more infectious or due to the recent intense focus on testing for the latest mutation.
The extensive array of mutations suggest that omicron could be more infectious than the highly infectious Delta variant and have greater capability of causing breakthrough infections among fully-vaccinated people.
The South African doctor who first recognized symptomatic differences in patients that led to the discovery, Dr. Angelique Coetzee, has been quoted as saying the symptoms of omicron infections have been more mild that those associated with other variants. However, she also has cautioned that her patients were predominantly 40 and under, and that omicron could pose greater risks for older people.
Malcolm and others continue to reinforce the message that vaccinations and booster shots remain the single best defense against severe illness, hospitalizations, and death from COVID-19, regardless of variant.
However, the message has been slow to get through to over a million eligible Minnesotans who haven’t yet gotten vaccinated. Vaccinations have accelerated week to week recently, due largely to the addition of 5 to 11-year-olds to the eligible pool and the broadening of booster availability to anyone over the age of 18.
On July 1, Minnesota hit a federal benchmark of having 70 percent of citizens 18 and over vaccinated with at least one shot of vaccine. Five months later, that number has only increased by five percent. For the eligible population five and over, the number stands at 70 percent.
Meanwhile, federal efforts to mandate vaccinations in certain workplaces and health care settings are now stalled in varying degrees by recent federal court rulings on lawsuits filed by coalitions of states opposed to the mandates.
The latest blows to the Biden administration’s plans came Monday and Tuesday when judges in different judicial districts issued rulings to halt the mandate for employees in healthcare settings receiving Medicare/Medicaid funds to be fully vaccinated by January or face the threat of fines or loss of funding. A previous federal district court ruling stopped the implementation of a U.S. Department of Labor mandate for mandatory vaccination or weekly testing for companies with over 100 employees, and another ruling currently limited to Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio put a hold on the mandate for vaccinations for employees of federal contractors.
A common theme among the rulings has been the question of Biden’s authority to impose such mandates through executive agency rulemaking, with states that are parties to the various lawsuits arguing no such authority exists. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the eviction moratorium instituted by the Centers for Disease Control based on a determination that the CDC had exceeded its authority in creating the moratorium, which could have implications for the vaccination mandate cases as they move through the judicial system.
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