Nurse Denise Thiede fills up a syringe with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine during a mobile vaccine clinic in Winthrop on July 16. (Hannah Yang/MPR News)

While Minnesota’s current upswing in COVID-19 is relatively mild compared to earlier surges, state officials are warning that the pandemic is not over yet and that those who are not vaccinated are especially vulnerable to a rapidly growing variant of the disease.

Briefing reporters for the first time in nearly two months, state public health leaders didn’t unveil any new policy changes but they placed a heavy emphasis on the need to boost vaccinations to head off the highly contagious delta strain, which they said is now driving 75 percent of new cases.

That growth “means trouble for people who never got vaccinated,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters. “The problem here is very much a problem of unvaccinated people getting exposed to an extremely contagious and dangerous virus.”

Malcolm noted state data showing that through July 15, 99.9 percent of Minnesotans who are fully vaccinated have not contracted the virus.

COVID-19 case counts have been trending upward for about the past month, although at a much slower pace so far than what the state saw during mid-April or late fall.

While the recent increases are concerning, the state’s in a much better position than in November or April thanks to vaccinations. Nearly 70 percent of state residents 16 and older have received at least one vaccination shot. Officials hope to reach that 70-percent threshold by the end of August.

Still, there are wide gaps in the vaccination rate among Minnesota regions.

“Some parts of Minnesota are fairly well protected” while regions with low vaccination rates are “extremely vulnerable,” Malcolm said.

Hospital admissions are ticking up but remain at a relatively modest pace.

The Health Department reported 153 people in Minnesota hospital beds with COVID-19 as of Friday, with 39 needing intensive care. At points during the mid-April surge, around 700 people needed hospital beds.

While vaccinations have moved ahead, the current level of vaccination “is not sufficient at this point,” said Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director.

“We can change the outcome if we take action and we make sure we are getting people vaccinated,” she added. “We do have the ability to change this by our actions.”

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