By WCCO-TV Staff

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Minnesota health officials reported 3,714 new COVID-19 cases and 17 deaths Friday, following a report that over 230 grade schools have had five or more virus cases since the start of the school year.

The additional figures bring the state’s total case count to 714,790, while 8,170 people have died since March of 2020. Roughly 52,000 tests were processed in the past 24 hours.

With the spike in exposures in schools, COVID-19 testing has surged in recent weeks. Health officials are encouraging families to get tested at mass testing sites or at local retail pharmacies, instead of taking children to the emergency room, which are already strained due to the influx of infected patients.

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As of Thursday afternoon, there were 799 people in Minnesota hospitals with the virus, of which 209 were in intensive care. ICU figures are reaching heights not seen since the end of the fall 2020 wave of the virus. In the metro area, 2.5% of staffed ICU beds are available; the northeast and southeast portions of the state are similarly seeing less than 5% availability.

On Friday morning, Merck & Co. announced its experimental COVID-19 pill reduced hospitalizations and deaths by half in people recently infected with the disease. It is the first pill shown to treat virus symptoms, which health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci have long been pushing for to further control waves of the pandemic. The results were released by the company and have yet to be peer reviewed.

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However, health experts continue to say that getting the COVID-19 vaccine is the most effective way to prevent virus infection. In Minnesota, 61.2% of the population has received their first dose, and 81,849 people have received the recently-authorized Pfizer booster shot. In all, more than 6.4 million vaccine doses have been administered.

The Minnesota Department of Health says that of those who have been infected with the virus, 685,073 no longer need to self-isolate.