COVID-19 hospitalizations have dropped below 1,000 for the first time in Minnesota since early November, easing pressure on the state's medical system.
The 898 COVID-19 hospitalizations on Monday included 145 people placed in intensive care. That is the lowest number since late August, reflecting an omicron variant that spread with unprecedented ease but caused a lower rate of severe infections.
Health officials are hopeful that Minnesota will have a prolonged respite from COVID-19 now that the wave of omicron infections is nearing a low point. The state reported another 32 COVID-19 deaths and 6,469 infections on Tuesday, reflecting pandemic activity detected over three days this weekend. Seven-day averages have plateaued for deaths and declined for infections.
The state's positivity rate of COVID-19 testing dropped to 10.9% in the week ending Feb. 7, and sewage sampling at the Metro Wastewater Treatment Plant in St. Paul has found the lowest level of viral material since mid-October.
Viral levels in greater Minnesota wastewater had remained higher as the omicron wave radiated from the Twin Cities, but now they are declining as well, according to University of Minnesota data.
"I would like to be hopeful and maybe naively optimistic that, as omicron is going down, we're going to be in a much better place from now on," said Dr. Michael Stiffman, chair of family medicine for the HealthPartners Medical Group. "I don't think anyone really believes this is going away. At this point, the hope is we get to a steady state with it where it becomes a minorly cyclical recurring illness."
The state has a high level of at least short-term immunity built up in its population against the coronavirus. More than 2.1 million Minnesotans received booster doses last fall and this winter out of 3.8 million who have been fully vaccinated. The 540,000 identified infections over the past 90 days offer temporary immunity as well, and that count doesn't include people with mild infections who were never tested or used rapid at-home tests that weren't reported.
Minnesota's COVID-19 double whammy started in July with the emergence of the severe and fast-spreading delta viral variant, which was quickly replaced in December by the faster-spreading omicron. Hospital overcrowding left the state with single-digit numbers of open adult ICU beds in early December, prompting warnings from health system leaders that they could no longer guarantee open beds if patients needed them.
Omicron did produce a brief uptick in COVID-19 hospitalizations, especially in children younger than 4 who were ineligible for vaccine. The rate of pediatric COVID-19 hospitalizations at omicron's peak was four times higher than it was at the delta peak in 14 states including Minnesota, according to a study published Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and co-written by Minnesota's state epidemiologist.
However, COVID-19 ICU numbers never rose in the omicron era in Minnesota — peaking at 371 on Dec. 14 when most patients were likely stricken with the delta variant.
An abrupt peak to seasonal influenza helped as well, driving total hospitalizations in Minnesota down to 7,093 on Monday after they had reached 8,231 in mid-November.
Influenza hospitalizations peaked in late December and reached a total of 560 as of Feb. 5. While there were only 35 last winter, a typical flu season sees 2,000 to 6,000 flu-related hospitalizations and peak numbers in February or March.
Minneapolis-based Allina Health reported fully vaccinated patients made up 52% of 272 COVID-19 hospitalizations on Monday. However, they made up 39% of patients in intensive care, reflecting the protectiveness of COVID-19 vaccine despite some waning immunity against omicron.