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Minnesota is launching telephone surveys of people who tested positive for COVID-19 during the past two years to learn about any lingering effects of the infectious disease.

The surveys come at the three-year mark of the pandemic as Minnesota encounters relatively low but persistent levels of COVID-19. The acute consequences are well-defined; Minnesota has reported almost 1.8 million lab-confirmed coronavirus infections and 14,497 COVID-19 deaths, according to Thursday's weekly pandemic update.

The long-term consequences remain something of a mystery, including the percentage of infected people who ended up with post-COVID conditions — also known as long COVID.

COVID-19 can simply linger in some people or exacerbate existing health problems in others, but for some people it produces almost an entirely new chronic disease, said Kate Murray, the long COVID program manager for the Minnesota Department of Health.

"These folks might even fully recover from their initial acute infections, and then after a few weeks they have these new weird symptoms that get worse and worse," Murray said during an online public webinar about long COVID on Wednesday.

The surveys will include a random sampling of Minnesotans with lab-confirmed infections in 2021 and 2022. A second project will focus on McLeod County in central Minnesota and survey people one month after their lab-confirmed infections.

"Long COVID is real and is having a tangible impact on the ability of Minnesotans to thrive," said Jay Desai, manager of the Health Department's chronic disease and environmental epidemiology section.

The goal is to establish the prevalence of long COVID and the most common symptoms so the state and health care providers can respond with the appropriate treatments and therapy opportunities.

Surveyors will immediately identify themselves as working for the Minnesota Department of Health. Calls for the statewide survey will come from 651-318-6203, and calls for the McLeod survey will come from 763-445-4875.

Wastewater readings showed declining or stable levels of the coronavirus in sewage samples collected statewide through March 8, according to a University of Minnesota dashboard. Viral levels declined 43% as well in samples collected last week at the Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant in St. Paul after they increased one week earlier.

Hospitals reported less of a COVID-19 burden, with 285 cases of the infectious disease taking up inpatient beds Tuesday. That included 23 COVID-19 patients in intensive care, the lowest total since April 2022.

Deaths from COVID-19 have persisted at about five to seven per day in Minnesota, after a brief spike in January to about 10 per day. Risks remain concentrated in senior citizens, who make up almost 93% of the 442 COVID-19 deaths reported so far in Minnesota in 2023.

Murray said long COVID remains a risk even from the current variants that aren't causing as many severe cases as prior variants. Long COVID is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as symptoms four or more weeks after an initial infection. Prevalence estimates vary widely from 5% to 30% in adults.

Murray said more than 200 symptoms have been attributed to long COVID and can vary widely in intensity and duration. Common neurological symptoms include difficulty concentrating, headaches, sleep problems, a tingling sensation in extremities, and changes in smell and taste.