In response to the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) new national warning against a surge in the respiratory illnesses Covid-19, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and the flu, it’s crucial to recognize the potential impact across Minnesota, a state that lost more than 15,000 people during the span of the pandemic, which started in 2020. Surprisingly, throughout 2023 Minnesotans were still dying from Covid-related illnesses.
Information by the CDC shows that nearly 391 Minnesotans died from respiratory illnesses last year, and in 2024 through January 18, 160 people have died from respiratory illness, 24 of them from Covid-related variants.
Although the rate of infection, hospitalizations and deaths are nowhere near the crippling totals of the early days of Covid-19, there is still reason to take caution, especially with the addition of new variants and the arrival of RSV.
Minnesota currently has a minimal threat rating of respiratory virus activity levels based upon national data that monitors the amount of respiratory illness (fever plus cough or sore throat) causing people to seek health care and visit emergency departments, as well as testing wastewater viral activity levels, which are elevated in the Midwest and South regions, according to the CDC.
Minnesota is in better shape than a lot of other states like Texas, California, South Carolina, Georgia, New Mexico and Louisiana, all showing high respiratory activity.
It’s equally important to understand why it’s paramount for communities of color to stay ahead of any pending outbreak, because those groups were disproportionately affected by Covid-19, experiencing higher rates of hospitalization and death.
This disparity is often attributed to systemic inequalities in access to health care, underlying health conditions, and socioeconomic factors. Data also show that older adults, particularly those over the age of 65, are at a higher risk of severe illness and hospitalization from Covid-19 and its variants.
With thousands of people dying of Covid-19 in the United States last year, and tens of thousands more abroad, the Covid-19 pandemic isn’t over. And while the recent warnings are by no means a reason to panic, they help Minnesotans prepare for what could become a major outbreak as hospitalizations are expected to increase nationwide.
Let’s not confuse the terms “pandemic” and “emergency,” said Abraar Karan, an infectious disease physician and researcher at Stanford University. Pandemics are defined by neither time nor severity, but rather by large numbers of ongoing infections worldwide. Emergencies are acute and declared to trigger an urgent response.
Ending the official emergency shifted the responsibility for curbing Covid-19 from leaders to the public. In the United States, it meant, for example, that the government largely stopped covering the cost of Covid-19 tests and vaccines.
But the virus is still infecting people; indeed, it is surging right now. Surprisingly, more than four years since the onset of the pandemic that killed more than a million people worldwide, more than 73,000 people died of Covid-19 in the U.S. in 2023, meaning the virus remains deadlier than car accidents and influenza.
Still, compared with last year’s seasonal surge, this winter’s wave of Covid-19 hospitalizations has been lower and death rates less than half. While a new coronavirus variant, JN.1, has spread around the world, current vaccines and Covid-19 tests appear to remain effective.
Other seasonal illnesses are surging too, but rates are consistent with those of previous years. Between 9,400 and 28,000 people died from influenza from Oct. 1 to Jan. 6, according to estimates by the CDC, and millions felt so ill from the flu that they sought medical care. Cases of pneumonia—a serious condition marked by inflamed lungs that can be triggered by the flu, Covid-19, or other infections—also predictably rose as winter set in.
Public health researchers recommend following the CDC guidance on getting the latest Covid and influenza vaccines to ward off hospitalization and death from the diseases and reduce the chances of getting sick. It’s not too late for an influenza vaccine, either, said Helen Chu, a doctor and epidemiologist at the University of Washington in Seattle. Influenza continues to rise, especially in Southern states and California.
Another powerful way to prevent Covid, influenza, common colds, and other airborne infections is by wearing an N95 mask. Many researchers say they’ve returned to socializing without one but opt for the masks in crowded, indoor places when wearing one would not be particularly burdensome.
The public is also encouraged to use home testing kits if they are not feeling well or suspect they have a serious respiratory ailment. However, some tests are known to produce inconsistent readings. A negative result with a rapid test might simply mean that an infection hasn’t progressed enough to be detected, that the test had expired, or that it was conducted wrong.
To be sure the culprit behind symptoms like a sore throat isn’t Covid-19, researchers suggest testing again in a day or two. It often takes about three days after symptoms start for a test to register as positive, said Karan, adding that such time estimates are based on averages and that individuals may deviate from the norm.
If Covid-19 is ruled out, Karan recommends tests for influenza because they can guide doctors on whether to prescribe an antiviral to fight it—or if instead it’s a bacterial infection, in which case antibiotics may be in order.
Jobs complicate a personal approach to staying healthy. Emergency-era business closures have ended, and mandates on vaccination and wearing masks have receded across the country.
Some managers take precautions to protect their staff. Chu, for example, keeps air-purifying devices around her lab, and she asks researchers to stay home when they feel sick and to test themselves for Covid-19 before returning to work after a trip.
However, occupational safety experts note that many employees face risks they cannot control because decisions on how to protect against outbreaks, such as through ventilation, testing, and masking, are left to employers. Notably, people with low-wage and part-time jobs, occupations disproportionately held by people of color, are often least able to control their workplace environments.
Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, said the lack of national occupational standards around airborne disease protection represents a fatal flaw in the Biden administration’s decision to relinquish its control of the pandemic.
“Every workplace needs to have a plan for reducing the threat of infectious disease,” she said. “If you only focus on the individual, you fail workers.”
Amy Maxen is a contributing writer for KFF Health News. Al Brown, Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, also contributed to this article.