Local COVID-19 response begins

Vials of COVID-19 samples were tested on Tuesday, March 3, 2020.

IRON RANGE — The coronavirus is surging in northeastern Minnesota to the point that Itasca County has suspended individual contact tracing, citing a record high rate of infections through community transmission.

“If you are in a group setting, just assume that someone has COVID,” said Kelly Chandler, department manager for Itasca County Public Health, in a press release Tuesday.

Itasca County on Tuesday reported a 14-day infection rate of 74.1 per 10,000 residents, blowing by the region’s previous record rate of 51.77 set during a two-week timeframe back in early October and late September. The new record rate accounts for infections between Oct. 25 and Nov. 6.

In shedding contact tracing, public health officials are focusing their efforts on protecting high-risk settings such as schools, long-term care facilities, childcare settings, workplaces, sports teams and places of worship.

They plan to resume partnerships on case investigations with regional public health staff and the Minnesota Department of Health, Chandler wrote in a follow-up email Tuesday. The investigations involve contacting the infected person, determining their infectious period and educating them on isolation, she added.

“What we are not prioritizing is calling the individuals identified by the positive case as a close personal contact to notify them of an exposure to someone with COVID and provide the education on quarantine period, symptoms to monitor for, and when to consider testing and how to keep others safe,” Chandler wrote, adding that high-risk settings like facilities, workplaces and teams will be contacted if the infected person is affiliated. “We will encourage the positive case to call their contacts and inform them they were positive and provide the [public health] information line at 218-327-6784 if needed.”

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After reporting record-setting cases last week, Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday announced new restrictions on bars, restaurants and gatherings. He also convened a special session Thursday to extend his emergency powers by another 30 days.

That same day, officials from the Minnesota Health Department reported an additional 4,906 cases and 23 deaths statewide, bringing cumulative totals to 189,681 infections and 2,698 deaths. Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said during a conference call that the Itasca County contact tracing situation is one the department is seeing play out in communities across the state. She said MDH is working to bring 500 additional staff and technology online to augment regional efforts, hopefully in the next few weeks, but said the recent surge in cases is heavily impacting contact tracing efforts.

“With this degree of community spread … that really important tool of contact tracing yields less actionable information when people have no idea where they got it,” she said. “The ability to act also gets a lot harder.”

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As of Tuesday, the state Health Department reported 21 new cases in Itasca County and 109 in St. Louis County.

Back in early September, Itasca County (Pop. 43,000) had 225 cases and 13 deaths. The county now has 1,081 cases with 18 deaths. At least 228 people in the county have been hospitalized. In the same time frame, neighboring St. Louis County (Pop. 200,000), had 1,073 cases and 25 deaths. The county now reports 4,532 cases and 77 deaths.

Amy Westbrook, St. Louis County Public Health Division Director, said on a conference call with the governor that 40 percent of the county’s cases are from community spread and 70 percent of the region’s hospitalizations and deaths were reported in September and October, and is continuing to rise in November.

She called the county “a microcosm of the state” — with 60 percent of the county’s population in Duluth and 40 percent spread throughout a large geographic area that includes the Iron Range — and said hospitalizations are at an all-time high and staffing levels at the regional health care networks are being stressed. About 48 percent of the deaths took place in Duluth, while roughly 52 percent occur in rural parts of the county including cities on the Iron Range, according to the county’s dashboard.

Chandler, of Itasca County, said in a press release that facilities are re-implementing surge plans from last spring. “We don’t want to use up health care resources needlessly,” she added.

Walz said that there are 11 available intensive care beds in the northeast region of the state and 96 in use for both COVID-19 and routine patients.

“We have not tipped over the edge,” he said, warning of potential staffing shortages, “but capacity is high. At this point in time, we can still manage. It’s not a red alert, but it’s flashing yellow.”

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Data from the St. Louis County Dashboard shows that the city of Duluth (Pop. 85,884) accounts for the majority of the current cases since mid-March, yet the number of cases have been steadily increasing in the smaller communities of the Range: Hibbing (283), Eveleth (129), Virginia (107), Chisholm (87) and Ely (51).

Seventeen assisted-living facilities in St. Louis County have cases and the rate of community transmission continues to rise in both the northern and southern parts of the county. Schools continue to navigate in-person and hybrid learning models in the area and sports teams have been impacted by virus cancellations. Duluth schools on Tuesday discontinued all in-person activities.

Tim Walz
Gov. Tim Walz puts on a mask as he walks away from The Daily Grind Espresso Café in Stillwater in September.
 

On the Iron Range, in Eveleth-Gilbert, the Golden Bears football team has canceled the remainder of its season due after a second player tested positive for COVID-19. In doing so, the final rivalry game against the Virginia Blue Devils scheduled for Thursday was canceled and the teams will combine into the Rock Ridge Wolverines next season.

City governments on the Range have not been reporting individual cases.

“We have unchecked community transmission in all parts of our community — urban and rural,” Westbrook said.

Meantime, the Bois Forte Health Services on Monday announced two new cases of COVID-19 on the northbound reservation, including an individual in their 30s who lives in Nett Lake and another in their 40s who lives in Vermilion.

Between 500 to 700 of the Bois Forte Band’s 3,500 members live on the reservation, where there are now a total of five active cases, with two in Nett Lake and three in Vermilion. The majority of other members reside in Minneapolis or elsewhere in Minnesota.

Depending where a person who tested positive for the virus lives on the reservation, their cases are reported in either St. Louis or Itasca counties which have been reporting record-setting numbers of cases in recent weeks.

“Rest assured that Bois Forte Health is doing everything in its power to keep the Reservation community safe while also providing support for those who have tested positive for COVID-19,” band officials said in a statement Monday. “Bois Forte Health will maintain regular contact with the isolated individuals and will monitor their compliance with isolation instructions.”

The band is coordinating efforts with the Minnesota Health Department to “ensure a robust and thorough public health response.”

Since the beginning of the year, at least 30 people have recovered from contracting the virus on the reservation.

The Bois Forte Band is among several tribal nations in Minnesota which have reported positive cases of the coronavirus. As of Tuesday, the federal Indian Health Services reported that 4,390 people tested positive for COVID-19 in the Bemidji area.

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