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COVID particles drop in wastewater across Minnesota as spring wave appears to ebb

Viral loads steadily climbed in all regions in the state from April to May, according to a COVID-19 wastewater surveillance dashboard maintained by the University of Minnesota in partnership with the state health department. But according to data reported from June 1 to 8, Greater Minnesota and the Twin Cities are seeing viral particle levels decline.

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ST. PAUL — As summer begins there are encouraging signs that the number of COVID-19 infections is on the decline across much of Minnesota, with the number of viral particles declining in wastewater samples from more than 40 treatment plants across the state.

Viral loads steadily climbed in all regions in the state from April to May, according to a COVID-19 wastewater surveillance dashboard maintained by the University of Minnesota in partnership with the state health department. But according to data reported from June 1 to 8, Greater Minnesota and the Twin Cities are seeing viral particle levels decline.

“I think where we are now is I do think we are on a little bit of a downslope,” said Dr. Jill Foster, a pediatric infectious disease physician at the University of Minnesota Health Fairview. “I follow that wastewater religiously, and it is giving us a really good idea that we're on our way down. The problem is, is that this keeps coming in waves.”

Foster said the U.S. spring wave of COVID-19 infections first appeared on the East Coast, with the Midwest lagging by about two weeks. The present wave of infections, which could likely now be on its way out, came after a surge early this year driven by the virus’s omicron variant — one predicted by the same wastewater data now showing dropping numbers. Foster is keeping a close eye on Europe for any signs of another wave that could later appear in the eastern U.S. before making its way to Minnesota.

While wastewater data shows a drop in viral particles statewide, a map maintained by the Mayo Clinic shows some hot spots remain in the state, such as central Minnesota’s Pope County. Foster also said that wastewater surveillance data is not as robust outside the Twin Cities metropolitan area. Each of the seven regions the dashboard divides the state into covers different-sized populations, though the more than 40 treatment plants health officials and the university monitors serve two-thirds of Minnesota’s residents.

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Between June 1-8 plants in the following seven regions showed the following declines in viral load:

  • Northwest: 5.9%
  • Northeast: 13.2%
  • Central: 10.7%
  • Metro: 5.3%
  • Southwest: 26.7%
  • South central: 16.7%
  • Southeast: 2.7%

Wastewater data is one of the best available methods of measuring the amount of virus in a community and has become only more valuable as fewer people receive laboratory-based testing for COVID-19. For this reason, measurements such as case rates per 100,000 aren’t as useful as they were earlier on in the pandemic.
Still, as of June 6, state health department data showed that metric had stalled after climbing since April. Minnesota's weekly rolling average of daily new cases per 100,000 was 30.6 as of June 6, after reaching a peak of 38.8 on May 11. Meanwhile, the hospitalization rate for COVID-19 in Minnesota had also appeared to stall after reaching a spring peak of 9.9 per 100,000 on May 12. As of June 6, it sat at 8.8 — above the high public health risk threshold category of 8, but substantially lower than extremes seen in the worst waves of the pandemic like when it reached 30 during January's omicron wave.

Omicron and its subvariants remain the dominant strains of COVID-19 in Minnesota and the U.S. since first appearing in late 2021. Wastewater plant data from the Twin Cities shows the omicron’s third major variant, BA.2.12.1, makes up nearly 70% of the viral load. Variants BA.4 and BA.5 have been steadily climbing since first appearing May, however, and as of June 6 made up more than 31% of cases.

Even if cases drop down to the lows seen last summer, Foster recommends continuing to wear a mask when in crowded indoor settings and testing if you experience any symptoms of COVID-19. The "new normal," she says, is about balance and taking current conditions into account.

“I always have trouble with these conversations because so many people tend to do sort of all or nothing,” she said. “People need to sort of view it like a thermometer and how much outdoor clothing you're putting on.”

Related Topics: CORONAVIRUSMINNESOTANEWSMD
Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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