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COVID-19 hospitalizations in Minnesota dropped below 400 for the first time since late March, the latest sign of a declining pandemic wave in the state and increasing vaccine protection.

The 396 hospitalizations on Thursday represented a substantial drop from 699 on April 14 — but remains well above the low mark this year of 210 on March 6.

The Minnesota Department of Health on Friday also reported 690 more infections with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and 21 more deaths — raising the state's totals in the pandemic to 597,731 infections and 7,354.

The daily death figure is one of the highest in weeks, but doesn't necessarily signal an increase because of the irregular process of verifying and then reporting COVID-19 fatalities. The newly reported deaths include 12 people who lived in private residences and nine who lived in long-term care facilities.

State health officials hope continued vaccination progress will further reduce the spread of COVID-19 — with nearly 63% of Minnesotans 16 and older receiving at least a first dose. That amounts to 2.8 million people and includes more than 2.4 million who have completed the one- or two-dose series.

Minnesota's vaccination numbers previously included state residents who received shots in North Dakota and Wisconsin, but now include shots provided in Iowa under a new data sharing agreement between the border states. Friday's vaccination numbers included about 2,000 first and second doses provided in Iowa. Minnesotans who received shots in other states aren't included in the state data unless they report their vaccinations to their local providers or directly to the state's immunization tracking system.

Minnesota has an incremental goal of providing vaccine to at least 70% of people 16 and older in the state by July 1.

Minnesota's professional sports teams offered support Thursday by offering COVID-19 vaccinations at upcoming games. The free vaccine events include Saturday's Minnesota Wild playoff game and the Monday through Wednesday Minnesota Twins series next week.

"We are always looking for creative ways to get vaccines directly to Minnesotans," Gov. Tim Walz said in a statement. "This partnership is just another example of that work."

Roughly 283,000 children in Minnesota gained access to the Pfizer version of COVID-19 vaccine last week when federal authorities lowered the age eligibility from 16 to 12. State data indicates that 38,000 people in the newly eligible age range have received shots in the past week.

The age cutoff for the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines remains 18.

Trend data indicates that vaccine is protecting vulnerable populations, including senior citizens and long-term care residents who were prioritized for initial doses earlier this winter.

Long-term care residents made up 65% of all COVID-19 deaths in Minnesota as of Jan. 1. Since that time, they have made up 48% of COVID-19 deaths in the state.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744