New COVID-19 cases in Minnesota have fallen below 1,000 per day for the first time since April, supporting optimism by President Biden and others about the pandemic.
Infectious disease experts said Biden was premature in declaring this week that the "pandemic is over," but that COVID-19 trends are at least encouraging ahead of the winter. Dr. Dimitri Drekonja said there are several COVID-19 cases in his neighborhood right now but fewer severe illnesses and much less pressure at work at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center.
"We're certainly way, way better than we were in the past," he said Thursday. "We're no longer concerned about having things like a full ICU or oxygen lines that can't keep up with demand. That's a thing of the past. It's rare now that we get someone who actually needs to be on oxygen."
COVID-19 levels have been steady all summer in Minnesota, though they nudged up in late July and August following Independence Day gatherings that likely increased viral transmission.
COVID-19 hospitalizations in Minnesota hit 535 on Aug. 19 but numbered 432 on Tuesday, according to the state's weekly situation report. Minnesota had three days in late August in which there were 10 or more COVID-19 deaths, but that pace has fallen back to about five deaths per day — almost all seniors. The state's overall COVID-19 death toll is 13,251, according to the report released Thursday.
Minnesota's decline from a seven-day average of 1,400 newly detected infections per day in August to less than 1,000 per day occurred despite the risks of viral transmission presented by the State Fair, Labor Day weekend and the start of the school year. Gov. Tim Walz last week said an uptick in infections remains possible in Minnesota this fall, though he too said the pandemic is in "a much more manageable state."
"COVID is kind of taking on that seasonal rhythm that endemic things like influenza have," Walz said in a public appearance last week to encourage booster shots.
Forecasts are mixed. Mayo Clinic predicts further declines in COVID-19 cases over the next two weeks. However, sewage sampling last week at the Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant in St. Paul found an increase in viral material, which can predict more cases in the immediate future.
Updated sampling results for the metro are due Friday. Statewide wastewater data through Sept. 14 showed declines in viral levels in every region but northeastern Minnesota.
Biden gained attention and criticism during Sunday's episode of "60 Minutes" in which he said, "we still have a problem with COVID. We're still doing a lot of work on it. But the pandemic is over." Technically, COVID-19 remains defined by the World Health Organization as a pandemic, although that organization's leader also said this month that the end is "in sight" based on declining deaths.
Drekonja said Biden was expressing what most people are thinking, though he probably should have been a bit more careful with his words.
"It does reflect reality that most people have moved on," he said. "And if you are in the vaccinated and boosted camp, you can kind of justifiably move on and say, 'All right, if I get sick, it will be a nuisance, it probably will not be a severe illness, and I'm fine with that.' And if you're the unvaccinated camp, you don't really believe any of this anyway and so you have already moved on."