MINNEAPOLIS — Go back just one month, and the Mayo Clinic's national COVID hotspot tracker show's how quickly cases have risen and spread throughout the country, but understanding what it means isn't as clear.
"It's a surge," said Dr. Bill Morice, President of Mayo Clinic Labs. "But the peak of the wave doesn't seem to be as high as what we've seen in prior surges."
Dr. Morice says new modeling from the Mayo Clinic indicates a 64% rise in cases across the country in the next two weeks, though indicators from wastewater and other sources indicate that Minnesota may have already peaked.
According to the CDC, data from the Mayo Clinic and more than a dozen other COVID models, indicates that an increase in hospitalizations and deaths will continue for the month to come. But Dr. Morice says that doesn't mean a strain on hospitals is likely.
"The modeling right now indicates that there will be less of a rise in hospitalizations and certainly less of an increase in deaths than we had seen even with the first appearance of the omicron variant."
Still, he says even if the current wave is smaller than projected, the timing has still been surprising.
"Between vaccination, and so many people getting infected with the winter surge of omicron, I kind of thought that, for the next six months or so, it would have been a lower positivity rate because of people being immune," Dr. Morice said. "I think that's telling us that we're going to be dealing with COVID... it's going to be something that we're just going to have to learn how to manage."
That could include more emphasis on vaccines and booster shots to help keep hospitalizations and deaths in check.
New data provided by MDH breaks down how, even in the current wave, the unvaccinated have the highest hospitalization rate, followed by the vaccinated and then those both vaccinated and boosted.
According to the MDH data, among those 65 and older, someone unvaccinated is five times more likely to be hospitalized than someone who is boosted.
"The data definitely shows being vaccinated, and having an additional booster shot, certainly protects you from getting severely ill with COVID," Dr. Morice said.
But Dr. Morice says the most recent data also shows boosters appear to be growing less effective at helping prevent infection. The MDH data shows breakthrough infections are rising in a similar trajectory across all groups.
"Even in our own community, here in Olmstead County, we have a very high proportion of people who have been vaccinated and boosted and yet we're still seeing positivity rates in the 10% range," Dr. Morice said. "That means those people are catching COVID."
But with vaccines and therapeutics helping hold off more serious COVID cases and deaths, Dr. Morice says he's cautiously optimistic.
Dr. Morice: "The hope and the expectation is that, as COVID continues to circulate, it's going to become a milder and milder illness. There's always a fear that you could get a more virulent strain that makes people really sick again, like delta, but that seems less and less likely as time goes on."
Kent Erdahl: "What would you tell people then in terms of how to approach this wave in the next few weeks?"
Dr. Morice: "We're going into the summer, we all have COVID fatigue, we'd all love to put it behind us. We have to recognize that there is, right now, a pretty high rate of community transmission of COVID in our state. That means you should be mindful when you go out, and really be mindful if you are out and you are going to be visiting people, loved ones, who are susceptible to getting severe COVID."
Because of that high transmission rate, and the prevalence of breakthrough infections, Dr. Morice says those wanting to be mindful about trying to avoid COVID in public settings, should consider using an N-95 or KN-95 mask, in order to provide a higher level of protection for themselves and loved ones.