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The pandemic burden on Minnesota hospitals has reached its lowest point since last May, with only 332 COVID-19 cases occupying inpatient beds in the state on Feb. 4.

Minnesota's weekly pandemic update on Thursday offered the latest proof that the state's third winter with COVID has been nothing like the last two. On Feb. 4 last year, the state encountered 1,240 COVID hospitalizations at the tail end of a severe wave of infections fueled by an omicron coronavirus variant.

Viral activity is low in general right now in Minnesota, which also on Thursday reported declining influenza levels. Only 16 people were newly hospitalized with influenza in the week ending Feb. 4, down from almost 600 per week in mid-November.

Seasonal flu surged early in the fall, spreading in a susceptible population that hadn't had much exposure to the influenza virus during the pandemic. Lessons from the pandemic might have helped Minnesotans to confront the early flu wave, said Melissa McMahon, influenza surveillance coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Health.

"When flu activity started spiking, people did use the practices they learned over the pandemic to limit spread, causing the peak to be short-lived," she said.

But COVID-19 isn't going away. Wastewater monitoring has shown steady coronavirus levels in the Twin Cities area. The highest levels in months have been found in the west-central and southwest regions of the state, according to University of Minnesota data.

An XBB coronavirus variant is now the dominant source of viral material found in sewage at the Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant in St. Paul, and appears to be sustaining infection levels.

The current pandemic risks require perspective, because people are still dying from COVID-19 at rates that caused alarm in the past, said Michael Osterholm, director of the U's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

Minnesota has identified 700 COVID deaths so far for the past three full months combined. That's close to the 730 deaths the state reported from March through May in 2021, when an alpha coronavirus variant spread in a population that still had limited access to COVID vaccines.

Minnesota's COVID death toll has reached 14,278. The state has the 12th-lowest COVID death rate among U.S. states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Senior citizens remain at greatest risk, accounting for 219 of the 232 COVID deaths identified by age group in Minnesota so far in 2023.

Minnesota health officials also contributed to a CDC report Thursday showing that the COVID vaccine has continued to reduce death risks even if it only mildly reduces infection risks. Recipients of the latest COVID boosters were 14 times less likely to die than unvaccinated people in the final three months of 2022, the report shows.

Only 30% of Minnesota adults have received the latest bivalent boosters, which were formulated against the omicron coronavirus strains that were dominant for much of 2022, according to CDC data. That still ranks as the fourth-highest booster rate among states amid public apathy over current COVID risks. Minnesota's booster rate among at-risk seniors is 61%, which ranks third highest.