COVID-19 viral load up 3% in Twin Cities wastewater

The COVID-19 viral load in the Twin Cities’ sewage rose 3% in the past week ahead of the July 4 holiday.

Although small, this was the second consecutive increase in the amount of viral material found in sewage from the St. Paul Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant. However, levels remained five times lower than they were during the January peak of Minnesota’s omicron COVID-19 winter wave.

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 in Minnesota also climbed back above 400 over the weekend after dropping to a low of 361 on June 18. Many of the 401 hospitalizations for COVID-19 on Thursday involved people who had been admitted for other purposes and only discovered their infections on routine screening. But the total included 41 people receiving intensive care, up from 26 five days earlier.

July has been a low point in COVID-19 activity for the past two-plus years of the pandemic, but it also marked the start of gradual increases. In 2020, health officials were closely watching summer outbreaks in bars and groups as sources of transmission. In 2021, the state encountered a fast-spreading delta coronavirus variant that spread rapidly and in the fall was causing a higher rate of severe illness in younger, unvaccinated adults.

Health officials are confident Minnesota is better positioned against COVID-19 this summer with strong supplies of antiviral treatments and high levels of immunity thanks to recent infections and vaccinations. However, apathy is a concern. Only 48% of Minnesota’s most vulnerable seniors are up to date with COVID-19 vaccinations, meaning they’ve received the initial doses plus boosters when recommended.

“We now have more tools at our disposal to manage this disease with vaccination, testing, medication, which helps us to be better placed, but we need people to continue to take these measures,” said Kathy Como-Sabetti, COVID-19 Chief, Minnesota Department of Health Epidemiology Section.

This week, the state joined others in moving to weekly rather than daily reporting on COVID-19 activity. Thursday’s first weekly update showed a decline in the seven-day average of new COVID-19 infections and deaths through the end of June. The total number of deaths from COVID-19 in Minnesota has reached 12,806.

Home COVID-19 testing has grown in popularity and is not included in public case numbers. As a result, sewage testing has become a more stable indicator of COVID-19 risks in the community.

Virus levels were scattered this week among 40 wastewater treatment plants reporting their results to the University of Minnesota. They were little changed across most of the state in the week ending June 26, but increased slightly in southwest and south-central areas.

Sampling at the St. Paul plant showed that a BA.5 subvariant of the coronavirus was now the largest source of COVID-19 material in Twin Cities wastewater. It accounted for 43% of the viral material found over the past week.

All counties in Minnesota were designated last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with low levels of COVID-19 that posed little threat to their local hospital capacities.

However, these numbers fluctuate from week to week, especially in smaller and rural counties. On Thursday, the CDC put Twin Cities counties back at moderate risk and nine counties in Greater Minnesota — Carlton, Cook, Itasca, Koochiching, Olmsted, Redwood, Renville, Rock and St. Louis — at high risk.

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