ST. PAUL — Attendance limits for outdoor events, dining and get-togethers put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19 lifted across Minnesota on Friday, May 7.
With case growth slowing and hospitalizations on the decline, caps on indoor occupancy will lift later this month, though masks will still be required in smaller venues until early July at the latest. Despite those developments, and the news that 2 million Minnesotans have been fully vaccinated as of last week, officials and health experts say COVID-19 will continue to be a fact of life for some time to come.
"We'll have a low level of maintenance on COVID probably years into the future, much like we do with the flu," Gov. Tim Walz told reporters at a news conference last week. "But it will not be that top priority and it won't take extraordinary methods."
The array of vaccines available to the public, elected officials and health experts say, are the best available tools for stamping out the health crisis, or at least making it more manageable. As the number of people administered them grows, however slowly, the fewer opportunities the virus will have to spread and propagate.
By the same token, as Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm put it at a separate news conference this week, "So long as this virus is circulating... it remains a threat to all of us."
To be sure, the virus is still circulating.
Even in Minnesota, which boasts a higher vaccination rate than some of its neighbors, Walz this week warned that the state's declining case growth rate is "still too high." Complicating that is a persistent disparity in vaccinations among ethnic and socioeconomic groups, one Minnesota officials have pledged to address by sending no less than 40% of the state's doses to high-risk areas over the next few weeks.
And each new infection presents an opportunity for new and perhaps vaccine-resistant virus variants to emerge.
Just this week, state health officials confirmed six COVID-19 cases in Minnesota associated with a variant recently identified in India. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have labeled it a "variant of interest," signaling that it must be examined more closely to determine whether it is more transmissibility and resilience.
"My fear is that we will see the continued development of variants, because the world is not vaccinated," Dr. Gregory Poland, head of the Mayo Clinic Vaccine Research Group said. "We're not an island. Every single place on Earth has been touched by this."
That being the case, some experts doubt whether "herd immunity" — which occurs when a sufficient number of people acquire immunity to a disease, either from a vaccine or an infection — can in fact be achieved. According to Dr. Ben Weston, associate professor of medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin, that might not be the right question to ask at this point in time.
"The goal right now is to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as we can in order to drive down the burden of disease and the transmission of disease," he said in an interview. "It's not that COVID is going to be full-throttle forward until we hit this magic percent, and then all of the sudden it's gone."
That means additional rounds of vaccination or even the reinstatement of pandemic restrictions could still be in the cards, according to Poland.
"It will very likely be that... we will have this virus with us, and that it will, at best, become something we see seasonally like influenza and could have to get new vaccines or boosters against it," he said in an interview. "Nobody knows that for sure yet."