ST. PAUL — Minnesota Department of Health officials said Monday, July 26, that the delta variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is the dominant strain circulating in the state.
The variant can resist some forms of treatments and the vaccine for COVID-19, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and is said to be more transmissible than previous strains of the virus.
The delta variant is thought to be driving a nationwide surge in new infections. That has proven to be the case in Minnesota as well, health officials said during a Monday news conference, although the reinstatement of pandemic restrictions does not appear to be in the cards.
"Delta and the other variants we see are real threats, and the risk for the unvaccinated and unprotected people is high," Health Department Commissioner Jan Malcom said.
Health officials delivered their comments as infection rates in other states soar and their leaders weigh renewing mask mandates and other mitigation measures. In Minnesota, the rate of new cases per 100,000 residents in and percentage of positive COVID-19 tests are increasing, as are active hospitalizations, but remain below key benchmarks and recent peaks observed in April.
Previously discovered variants have been linked to a greater number of infections in Minnesota than delta, officials said Monday, but that is a function of their being around longer. The delta variant has meanwhile been responsible for three out of every four new COVID-19 infections in Minnesota, they said.
While the delta variant does exhibit some resilience in the face of vaccines, officials stressed Monday that "breakthrough" cases remain rare in Minnesota. Health Department Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann said infections involving vaccinated individuals in the state total of 3,886, or less than 1% of the roughly 3 million fully vaccinated residents of the state, though the department has not disclosed what number of breakthrough cases in Minnesota have been associated with the delta variant.
"We have been delighted with the effectiveness of the vaccines that have been made available against COVID. But we need to keep in mind that no vaccine is 100% effective," Ehresmann said. "Our data still shows that 99.9% of people who have been vaccinated have not developed COVID, which I think is really, really significant."
Malcom said the pandemic is currently affecting unvaccinated individuals the most, pointing to a CDC report from last week stating 97% of recent hospital admissions attributed to COVID-19 involved unvaccinated individuals. Health officials also advised residents who travelled recently to Provincetown, Mass. — even those who have been vaccinated — to get tested for COVID-19 due to an outbreak there.
At an unrelated news conference Monday, Gov. Tim Walz told reporters that he wasn't weighing a reintroduction of a peacetime emergency at this time but planned to speak with health officials about safety measures for the 2021-22 academic year. Health officials separately said that guidance for schools would be announced in the coming days, and that it will take the form of recommendations as opposed to requirements.
"There is still every reason to be concerned and so what we’re doing now is putting things in place looking at how do we respond to this?" Walz said. "We're seeing cases increase but not nearly as fast as the rest of the country, we’re much better prepared this time around but the real solution on this is we just need folks to get over the hesitancy they have and get the vaccine. The rest of us did it. The rest of us need you to do that."
Whether or not additional booster shots for the COVID-19 vaccine will be necessary is for the federal government to decide, officials said Monday, as are authorizations for younger children. According to Ehresmann, the standard approval of the vaccine, which is only approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for "emergency use," could occur by the end of the year.
Forum News Service reporter Dana Ferguson contributed to this report.