EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to include comment from Waconia schools superintendent Pat Devine and to include information about the newly announced pop-up testing clinic in Chanhassen.

As COVID-19 vaccinations statewide continue to trend upward, virus variants found in Carver County have led Minnesota health officials to recommend a two-week pause in youth sports across the county in an effort to slow the spread of these variants.

Since late January, state health officials have charted a rapidly growing outbreak of virus variants linked to school and club sports and local gyms and fitness centers – at least 68 documented cases since late January, according to the state health department. Between Feb. 24 and March 4, state health department data shows a 62 percent increase in COVID-19 cases in Carver County. Of those new cases, at least 24 have been confirmed as a variant of the virus first identified in the United Kingdom. The state health department maintains that at least 26 additional cases have links to confirmed cases of the virus variant. The state has determined that many of the people diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus variant had attended school or sporting events while they were infectious.

“We all need to keep working together to combat this pandemic, and we support the health department’s recommendations,” said Dr. Richard Scott, Carver County Public Health director. “We will continue supporting our schools and businesses in following this new guidance to protect everyone in our communities.

The uptick has led state officials to recommend a county-wide pause in youth sports for two weeks, starting Monday, March 8. Due to the possibility of cross-county contamination, state officials are also recommending statewide active screening measures for school-related sporting events, weekly testing of athletes and coaches and strict enforcement of proper masking. ISD 110 in Waconia will continue with varsity sports, but will pause all other youth sports activities.

“In order to mitigate the spread the best we can, yet provide opportunities for our varsity sports teams to continue, we plan to compromise by placing all youth sports in our control (with the exception of varsity sports) on pause one week at a time,” Superintendent Pat Devine said in an email to district parents.

Waconia schools are on spring break this week, and Devine said only varsity teams that have cleared COVID-19 protocols will be allowed to compete in the district the week of March 8, and that home games that week will not allow spectators.

Devine said district officials are monitoring the situation, and he believes the district can wait for updated numbers later in the week before making further decisions.

The state is also recommending schools in Carver County maintain a hybrid-learning model, with full physical distancing for secondary students and urging schools to pause other extracurricular activities where sufficient distancing cannot be maintained. Waconia schools have not yet made a decision on that front, according to Devine, and secondary students are currently slated to return to in-person learning on March 16.

“This new COVID-19 variant outbreak could affect our in-person opening schedule, but no decision has been made at this time,” Devine said. “We will watch closely to wait and see what next week’s outcomes bring.”

The news comes as Carver County crosses a vaccine milestone – as of Sunday, March 7, more than 17,000 county residents had received at least one dose of vaccine; and more than 8,700 county residents have completed the vaccine series. Carver County currently has a cumulative 7,284 cases of the virus, according to the state health department, and has lost 41 residents to the disease. Statewide, more than 1 million residents have started the vaccine series, with more than 570,000 Minnesota residents having finished the vaccine series.

As vaccine rates continue to climb, health officials warn against the public becoming lax in transmission reduction practices, like social distancing and mask-wearing.

“We are making progress in the effort to end this pandemic, but we need all Minnesotans to keep up their guard until the work is done,” said Minnesota Commissioner of Health Jan Malcom. “The variants circulating now present added risk that we may see another surge in cases and we need everyone to do their part to prevent that from happening. That means masking, social distancing, staying home when sick and getting tested when appropriate.”

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