St. Louis County is watching coronavirus cases climb faster than all 87 counties in Minnesota except one.
As of Friday, state health officials reported 502 COVID-19 cases in the county, roughly three-fourths residing in Duluth. The county reported 119 new cases in the past week and 14 on Friday.
The news comes on the heels of the county testing over two days at fairgrounds in Chisholm. Spokesperson Dana Kazel said the county received complete data on those tests Friday: four positives out of 1,679 tests processed. A data entry error previously recorded 1,703 tests, she added.
Still, county health officials are seeing cases rise as schools in the area are weighing their options on the Safe Learning Plan unveiled by the state. As of data through July 25, St. Louis County is within the recommended threshold for in-person learning for all students, but ultimately it's a local decision by school boards.
"We've seen a pretty significant increase over the month of July,” Amy Westbrook, public health division director to the county board, said on Tuesday.
It’s a trend troubling local and state health agencies, who are noting increased community transmission rates, with about 40 percent of St. Louis County patients having visited a bar or restaurant during their exposure period.
State Health Commissioner Jan Malcom said Friday that they’ve seen a growing trend in community transmission since the state reopened further in June. She cautioned people about asymptomatic spread in bars and restaurants, where the coronavirus is more easily spread.
Malcolm singled out McLeod, St. Louis and Blue Earth counties as rural areas seeing dramatic increases in recent days. McLeod County, just west of the Twin Cities, is the fastest-growing with 173 total cases and 25 newly-confirmed Friday.
State health officials are also concerned about Minnesotans attending the famed Sturgis motorcycle rally in South Dakota this weekend, where a mask requirement is not in place and some large events take place indoors.
Minnesota is recommending a voluntary 14-day quarantine period for rally goers, especially those working with vulnerable or high-risk populations, and said their advice differs from that given to George Floyd protesters because of increased community spread.
“We are in a historic pandemic,” Malcolm said. “We have big problems in Minnesota and the U.S. with community transmission.”
Officials are also seeing an increase in cases at long-term care facilities (LTCF), primarily in staff and tied to community spread. State epidemiologist Dr. Ruth Lynfield said they’ve made good progress on long-term care facilities since the start of COVID-19 in Minnesota this March, but staff live and work in the communities where the virus is circulating, and urged everyone to be mindful of their role.
Since June, the state’s median age has trended downward to 36 years old on Friday, but infections among long-term care residents has nearly tripled, with 172 cases last week, according to the Star Tribune.
“There’s only so much we can do from a system standpoint,” Lynfield said, “to prevent workers from getting infected” and bringing into facilities and exposing high-risk populations.
Dr. Karen Martin, a senior epidemiologist for the Minnesota Department of Health, said Friday that there are 151 active care facilities with an outbreak and 414 since the pandemic began. But 91 percent of long-term care sites have not had an infection in the last 28 days.
Lynfield said the state began to make real progress after a five-point plan was instituted to help guide facilities and care centers, but called the state of infections “fragile.”
"No matter how hard everyone works to prevent the spread of COVID among LTC facilities, there's still a connection to the community," she said. "We are very concerned that the progress we have made can be lost if we let up on our precautions."
On Friday, MDH reported 556 new cases statewide from about 16,000 lab tests and four new deaths, with decreased numbers in hospitalizations and intensive care patients. Malcolm said the number of new cases, down from Thursday’s 867 was encouraging, but cautioned that they’ve seen fluctuations before. The seven-day rolling positivity rate was at 5.3 percent Friday, up from 4.9 percent a week ago.
In total, Minnesota has had 59,185 positive cases and 1,640 deaths from more than 1.1 million tests. About 52,000 people out of isolation, 300 still remain in the hospital and 155 in ICU.