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Year 3: Could this be the Covid coda?

It was a quiet Friday afternoon, until it wasn’t.

On Friday, March 6, 2020 — the Minnesota Department of Health announced the first case of Covid-19 had been confirmed in Minnesota. It set off a whirlwind of drastic change in the state, including in Carlton County.

A lot has happened in the two years since then. Minnesota’s first year living with Covid-19 was marked by uncertainty, the loneliness of being apart and a lockdown. Near the end of 2020, there was hope, as Minnesotans began to be vaccinated.

In 2021, things loosened up as an increasing number of people were vaccinated against the virus, but the virus was changing. The delta variant brought more severe disease before omicron caused a case surge.

As we enter the third year and immunity becomes more widespread, Covid-19’s hold on our lives feels like it’s lifting.

People are moving toward a posture of living with the virus.

Here’s a look at how our first two years of living with Covid-19 differed, and what could lie ahead as we enter Year 3.

Waves of cases

Since March of 2020, Minnesota has confirmed 1,420,149 cases of Covid-19. That number is likely an undercount for a few reasons, including that testing was hard to come by both early in the pandemic and during the omicron surge, and because many cases have been asymptomatic. Further, the results of at-home Covid-19 tests are not reported to the state.

Early on in the pandemic, non-essential businesses were shut down and indoor dining was forbidden.

Testing was inadequate, so the true size of the initial spring wave of Covid can’t really be determined from official case counts.

Still, by the summer of 2020, daily case counts did appear to have stabilized, and many of the restrictions of public life were lifted. Schools opened with students in the fall after months of distance learning in the spring.

Things changed quickly in the last three months of 2020 when daily case counts increased rapidly, creating a second wave of Covid that lasted into the early months of 2021.

As a result of the winter increase in cases, Gov. Tim Walz reimposed restrictions on the size of gatherings and indoor dining was again shut down. Schools paused in-person learning.

Going into the second year of the pandemic, in March of 2021, case counts were once again on the rise, but there was reason for hope: Covid-19 vaccines, which were first made available to health care workers in December, were starting to be made available to the general public.

Students at Cloquet High School returned to classes in March of 2021 for the first time since November as the winter spike subsided.

Following the first wave of vaccination, daily new case counts dropped to some of their lowest numbers since the beginning of the pandemic, and by early summer of 2021, masks were coming off and society was beginning to open up almost to a level not seen since before the pandemic.

It wasn’t to last. By midsummer, the delta variant, which caused more severe disease and proved better at evading vaccines than previous strains of the coronavirus, began to fuel a new wave of cases that lasted through the fall. Daily new case counts during the delta wave generally didn’t reach the peaks they had reached in the previous fall wave, but they were still high enough to lead to reimposing some precautions, such as mask mandates in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Then came omicron. Case counts grew rapidly in late 2021 and early 2022 with the emergence of this new variant, which research suggests is more transmissible than delta. On the positive side, on average omicron infection caused less-severe disease. While the share of people hospitalized with omicron was smaller than with previous variants, the variant caused the largest wave of cases the state had yet seen, again filling hospitals.

Roughly two-thirds of confirmed Covid-19 cases in Minnesota overall happened in Year 2.

A less-deadly year

While case counts were higher in the second year of the pandemic, deaths were not.

By early March, Minnesota had confirmed 12,221 deaths due to Covid-19 since March 6, 2020.

The majority of those deaths occurred in the first year of the pandemic. According to data from the Minnesota Department of Health, there were 7,005 Covid-19 deaths in the first year. Data show that 5,216 Minnesotans died of Covid in the second year.

Deaths rose at a steady pace over the spring of 2020 as the virus spread across the state among a population being exposed to it for the first time. Health care systems struggled to figure out how to treat so many patients sick with a virus that attacked so many systems of the body. Many of the people dying were older. Residents of long-term care weren’t allowed to see their loved ones for months as these facilities shut down to slow the spread.

Over the summer, deaths declined along with cases. But the virus would roar back again in the fall, filling hospitals and increasing the number of daily deaths.

Covid-19 deaths declined quickly after vaccines became available, administered first and widely to the most vulnerable Minnesotans as well as health care workers.

By the virus’ first anniversary in Minnesota, only the oldest and most vulnerable residents, plus health care workers, were getting vaccinated. On March 7, 2021, only 18.8 percent of the state’s residents had received at least one dose of a vaccine. Two years later, a much larger swath of the state’s population is eligible for vaccination, and the percentage of Minnesotans who are vaccinated stands at nearly 70 percent. Nearly half the population — 45.7 percent of Minnesotans — are considered up to date on shots, with a primary vaccine series as well as a booster shot if they’re eligible for it.

Vaccines were widely available in Carlton County by April of 2021 and residents stayed on pace with some of the highest vaccination rates in the state.

For a time, as more Minnesotans got vaccinated and case counts and deaths were low over the summer, things began to feel almost normal again. Celebrations across the county, scuttled in 2020, were back on. It was a brief respite.

As the delta variant began to spread, deaths started to rise quickly beginning in August. Hospitals started to fill again, mostly with unvaccinated people, and deaths rose. The omicron surge drew the wave of deaths out into December.

County schools were on their own in Covid protocols for what would be the third school year touched by the pandemic. A variety of masking rules emerged and changed as case counts rose and fell in the first six months of the school year. Illness spread across districts, with some taking an extended holiday break to try and bring staff and students back.

Looking ahead

With a third year beginning since the onset of Covid, there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic. Some estimates put the share of the population with some level of immunity to Covid-19, whether by vaccine or infection, at or above 80 percent.

Some like to say we are living in a new normal. The omicron wave that’s winding down likely won’t be our last wave or the last variant. But vaccines are expected to remain at least somewhat protective against severe Covid-19 disease.

Pine Knot News reporter Mike Creger added local elements to this story. MinnPost is a nonprofit, nonpartisan enterprise whose mission is to provide high-quality journalism for people who care about Minnesota. It offers its stories for use in news outlets across the state.

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