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COVID Breakthrough Infections Surging in Minnesota

The trend underscores the waning immunity in Minnesotans who received COVID-19 vaccines six or more months ago, including seniors and people with underlying health conditions who were prioritized for the earliest doses last winter.

Minnesota hospital leaders urge unvaccinated adults and newly eligible children to get the COVID-19 vaccine and adults to seek boosters as recommended.
ANTHONY SOUFFLE • anthony.souf
(TNS) - Breakthrough infections are an increasing part of a prolonged COVID-19 pandemic wave in Minnesota , according to new data released Friday, but people who are unvaccinated still face the biggest risk and take up more hospital beds.

Detailed breakthrough data showed that fully vaccinated Minnesotans made up 197 of the 483 deaths from Sept. 5-Oct. 9 and 1,082 of the 3492 COVID-19 hospitalizations. While 41% of the deaths in that time frame were among the vaccinated, that is an increase from the previous four months when they made up 29% of COVID-19 deaths.

The trend underscores the waning immunity in Minnesotans who received COVID-19 vaccines six or more months ago, including seniors and people with underlying health conditions who were prioritized for the earliest doses last winter. Booster doses are recommended for all recipients of Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine and for recipients of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine who are seniors or younger adults with health problems or workplace risks for viral exposure.

"It's fair to say we are kind of in a perfect storm moment," said Kris Ehresmann , state infectious disease director. "We have delta as the dominant strain, so that certainly has changed the landscape since we first identified it in Minnesota in June. Then you do have the impact of waning immunity."

Minnesota since the start of the pandemic has released the date of every COVID-19 positive test, hospital admission and death, but hesitated to provide a similar level of detail with its breakthrough statistics for fear that they would be misconstrued and undercut vaccination progress.

More than 3.7 million people in Minnesota have received at least first doses of COVID-19, or 66% of the total population, leaving 2 million unvaccinated people. That includes about 500,000 children 5-11 who became eligible for pediatric COVID-19 vaccine doses last week and children under 5 who aren't eligible.

The differing denominators of the two populations means the proportional risk of coronavirus infections and severe COVID-19 remains higher among the unvaccinated, especially among adults. Seniors were 17 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 and 19 times more likely to die of the infectious disease in September if they hadn't been vaccinated, Ehresmann said.

Minnesota hospital leaders implored unvaccinated adults and newly eligible children to see COVID-19 vaccine, and adults to seek boosters as recommended, to confront a worsening bed crisis.

Minnesota hospitals had a 2021 record of 1,245 COVID-19 cases admitted to inpatient beds Thursday. While that is lower than the pandemic record of 1,864 on Nov. 29 , the COVID and non-COVID cases combined have put hospitals under renewed pressure.

Patients filled 8,219 inpatient hospital beds in Minnesota on Thursday — an occupancy rate above 95% — compared with only 6,991 during the record date of COVID-19 hospitalizations last November.

"We're above 100%," said Dr. Mark Sannes , who is leading the COVID-19 response for HealthPartners , which includes Regions Hospital in St. Paul and Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park . "We have patients who are admitted to the hospital and have no bed who are boarded in our emergency center. We're having to manage them entirely in our emergency department."

One-third of the 447 COVID-19 patients admitted to HealthPartners hospitals in Minnesota and western Wisconsin over the past 30 days have been vaccinated. Among the 48 patients who needed ventilators to maintain adequate oxygen intake, only 13 were vaccinated.

"The message cannot be that the vaccine is not working, because that is false," Sannes said. "This vaccine is keeping people out of the hospital."

Minnesota had the sixth-highest rate of new coronavirus infections in the past seven days, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention . The state on Friday reported that the positivity rate of recent diagnostic testing increased to 9.5%, and another 4,849 coronavirus infections and 28 COVID-19 deaths. The state's pandemic totals are 841,625 infections and 8,996 deaths.

A handful of states like Minnesota are providing date-level precision to their breakthrough COVID-19 statistics, and all of them are showing the same balance of risk tilting toward the unvaccinated. California reported 245 COVID-19 deaths among vaccinated people in October and 1,271 deaths among the unvaccinated.

"If my dream came true and 100% of Minnesotans were vaccinated," Ehresmann said, "then all of our cases would be vaccine breakthroughs. No vaccine is 100%."

Early vaccine recipients had more risk of illness because of their age and health conditions or more risk of infections because of their jobs, so Ehresmann said they are at elevated risk amid waning immunity now. However, there are encouraging signs that the vaccines remain protective. Breakthrough infections are increasing among residents of long-term care facilities, she said, but the rate of death isn't as severe in this vulnerable population as it was in earlier waves.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744

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