Health officials are recommending changes for youth sports across Minnesota after identifying COVID-19 case clusters in Carver County that involve a more contagious form of the pandemic virus.

Since late January, at least 68 coronavirus cases have been connected to participants in school-sponsored and club sports, the Minnesota Department of Health announced Friday.

Whole genome sequencing has confirmed that 24 of the cases were caused by the variant known as B.1.1.7, with cases found in athletes, coaches, students and household contacts. Health officials have found links between those cases and at least 44 others.

Cases among young athletes span a number of sports including hockey, wrestling, basketball and Alpine skiing. The state also has seen case increases connected to gyms and fitness centers in Carver County, including some linked to sports-related outbreaks.

“Amongst the B.1.1.7 cases that we have identified among the young athletes, there have not been severe cases,” Dr. Ruth Lynfield, the state epidemiologist, said during a news conference Friday evening.

The B.1.1.7 variant was first identified last year in the United Kingdom, where scientists found it to be more infectious and threatening. It has been spreading across the U.S., with Minnesota reporting its first cases on Jan. 9.

“Overall, statewide, among the 165 cases of B.1.1.7 that we have identified, there have been eight hospitalizations and, unfortunately, there has been one death,” Lynfield said.

To prevent the Carver County outbreak from spreading, health officials are recommending active screening for youth sports across Minnesota, including weekly testing of athletes and coaches. Participants should not gather before or after games for team dinners, parties or sleepovers, health officials say. They’re also calling for strict enforcement of mask wearing.

Health officials believe the clusters of variant cases are contributing to increased infection counts across Carver County. Whereas the county saw 118 cases during the seven-day period beginning Jan. 27, Lynfield said, the tally this past week was 191 — an increase of 62%.

“Multiple schools, both public and private, have confirmed cases tied to the variant strain,” the Health Department said in a news release. “Many infected by the B117 variant attended school or sports activities while infectious.”

In Carver County, health officials have called for a two-week pause in youth sports, including school and club teams, starting Monday. For schools, the state is recommending the county maintain hybrid learning with full physical distancing for secondary students. Schools are also asked to consider a pause on extracurricular activities.

The Health Department is calling on gyms, fitness centers and pools to enforce rules on masking, pause group classes and screen employees for symptoms or recent exposure.

On Thursday, the Star Tribune reported three girls’ basketball teams from the seven-team Metro West Conference canceled the rest of their regular season schedule due to COVID-19 exposure.

In addition, the Waconia girls’ hockey team’s last two games of the regular season next week are listed as canceled on the Minnesota Girls’ Hockey Hub. The Waconia boys’ hockey team’s game on Saturday also has been canceled.

At Holy Family in Victoria, a boys’ basketball game scheduled for Friday was canceled along with a girls’ basketball game on Saturday.

The recommended pause comes as high school teams and athletes are preparing for the first state tournaments next week since the pandemic shut them down last March. First up are the Alpine and Nordic skiing meets in Biwabik and the dance team state tournament at Edina High School.

Postseason play also begins soon for wrestling, gymnastics, and boys’ and girls’ hockey and basketball.

Staff writer Paul Klauda contributed to this report.

Christopher Snowbeck • 612-673-4744

Twitter: @chrissnowbeck

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