U.K. Variant 'Widespread' in Minnesota as State Leads U.S. For Used COVID Vaccines

The more contagious U.K. COVID variant is now considered to be widespread in Minnesota, according to state officials.

Health officials reported that nearly 500 cases of the variant—dubbed B.1.1.7—have been reported in the state so far, although this is almost certainly only a fraction of the true number.

There has also been an increase in the spread of two other COVID variants first detected in California, which also appear to spread more easily. The state has also reported cases of variants first identified in South Africa and Brazil.

State Epidemiologist and Minnesota Department of Health Medical Director Dr. Ruth Lynfield, said in a press conference on Tuesday that officials were "concerned" about the risk of another spike in cases, even as the state continues to make "encouraging progress" on vaccinations.

Variant tracking efforts across the country are not able to provide a full picture of the real situation because officials can only analyze a small number of COVID samples. But genomic sequencing efforts in Minnesota indicate that B.1.1.7 is increasing in prevalence.

"When we look at one of our partner labs, we estimate that 50 to 65 percent of COVID-positive specimens tested March 16 through March 20 were B.1.1.7," Lynfield said in the press conference. "This is an increase compared with specimens tested March 10 through the 15th in which 38 to 44 percent of those specimens were estimated to be B117."

Experts had previously predicted that B.1.1.7 would become the predominant variant in the U.S. due to its higher transmissibility.

Lynfield said it was "interesting and concerning" that only 15 percent of the identified B.1.1.7 cases that provided a history on whether or not they traveled, reported that they had traveled in the fourteen days prior to developing the disease.

"This indicates widespread transmission of the B.1.1.7 within Minnesota," Lynfield said.

The state's vaccine rollout is progressing relatively well with Governor Tim Walz announcing on Tuesday that Minnesota currently ranks first in the nation for the percentage of distributed vaccine doses that have been administered.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Minnesota has administered over 88 percent of vaccine doses that it has received—more than any other state.

"I am so proud of all the hard work done in our state to make Minnesota a consistent leader in the nation in getting shots into arms," Walz said in a statement. "From our providers working around the clock, to local public health organizing on the ground, to our community leaders providing invaluable services and educating their neighbors, to all the Minnesotans rolling up their sleeves when it's their turn, I am grateful for everyone in our state working together to end this pandemic."

"Now let's keep up the good work—we won't stop until every Minnesotan who wants a shot gets one."

In total, the state has fully vaccinated around 15 percent of Minnesotans while nearly 26 percent have received at least one shot.

But health officials say that despite the encouraging figures, people should not let their guard down now.

"At this point it is a race to vaccinate more people versus the growth of variant cases," Lynfield said. "As encouraging as the vaccination numbers are we need to remember that we have a population of 5.6 million and most Minnesotans are not yet fully vaccinated. That means we still have millions of Minnesotans still susceptible to infection and the health impacts that can go with it.

"A more infectious virus spreading widely among millions of susceptible Minnesotans—some who may be tempted to relax their social distancing, masking and other precautions—can help fuel a third spike in COVID cases, and a corresponding increase in hospitalizations and deaths."

While Lynfield recognized that there was widespread COVID fatigue, she urged Minnesotans to continue to abide by public health guidelines.

"We have been at this for many months and we're all excited to get to the end. But with these variants circulating, and it being easier than ever for one infected person to pass COVID-19 to another susceptible person, now is the time to buckle down and finish the job we all started," she said.

Minnesota COVID-19 testing facility
A member of the Minnesota National Guard assists two people at a COVID testing facility in the Stillwater Armory National Guard Center on December 10, 2020 in Stillwater, Minnesota. Stephen Maturen/Getty Images