‘These last two months have been tough’

Jan Malcolm, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health, listens to White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx speak to reporters in August.

St. Louis County reported another one-day record for coronavirus cases and has registered 70 percent of its total confirmed cases in less than two months, health officials said Thursday.

The 115 newly-recorded cases is the highest one-day total in the county since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March and underscores the rapid growth rate the virus has taken on in the region.

Since Sept. 1, St. Louis County has reported 2,330 coronavirus cases — about 70 percent of the 3,256 total recorded since the spring — with about 60 percent of the deaths, hospitalizations and intensive care patients coming in that same timeframe.

“The last two months, this is really when we’ve seen an increase in cases,” said Amy Westbrook, the county Public Health Division Director, during a virtual press conference Thursday.

She reported three new deaths from the virus, bringing the county’s total to 74. Currently, 21 people are hospitalized and eight in intensive care. In the last 10 days, Westbrook said, hospitals across the region have averaged 20 people hospitalized from the virus daily, a sign of increasingly more severe cases of COVID-19.

Last week, county health officials warned of a recent surge in northern St. Louis County, specifically on the Iron Range. As of Thursday, case numbers in Hibbing and Eveleth zip codes highlight that trend. The cities have 237 total cases and 106, respectively, with Virginia at 84.

Westbrook said community spread continues to be the largest factor in the recent spread and that many patients don’t know how they contracted the virus.

“These last two months have been tough,” she said, noting from March to August only 947 total cases were reported. “We did a lot of great things. We need to slow the spread. We don’t want to overrun our hospital systems.”

Minnesota Department of Health officials said Thursday that statewide COVID-19 numbers also set a new record with 2,872 new coronavirus cases, along with 32 deaths, the third-highest daily total of fatalities from the virus.

Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Minnesota has registered four days of more than 2,000 cases in October and the testing positivity rate reported Thursday was 6.8 percent. Generally, a 5 percent positivity rate or higher is cause for concern.

While the state continues an upward trend that worries health officials, the numbers continue to pale in comparison to neighboring states.

Wisconsin health officials on Thursday reported 4,870 new cases and 51 deaths, noting the average number of new daily cases over the last seven day is 4,128.

The state has been in a back and forth with North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming as leading the nation in infection rates in recent weeks.

"We’re in a tough spot, Wisconsin," said Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

School navigate rising rates

The rise in local cases also has local schools evaluating their learning models on the fly.

St. Louis County released the bi-weekly COVID-19 case rate, per 10,000 residents, for schools Thursday. The data accounts for the timeframe between Oct. 4-17, and schools in Greater SLC are at an all-time high of 37.6 per 10,000 residents, while Duluth has a slight increase from last week’s 32.7 to 34.2.

With the newest data, rural schools in the county are now at a higher infection rate than Duluth’s highest rate of 35.2, which took place from Sept. 20 to Oct. 3. Last week, information for Sept. 27 to Oct. 10 had greater SLC at 25.5 and Duluth at 32.7. This shows a large spike in Greater St. Louis County, a trend which has been seen throughout the past month.

The Itasca County rate reported this week was down to 39 per 10,000 from 51.2 last week.

Based on the state health department’s recommended policy, when rates are between 20-30 per 10,000 residents, all students should be moved to hybrid learning. At a rate between 30-50, elementary students should be hybrid while middle and high schoolers are distance learning. Over 50, all students should be distance learning.

Again, this is a recommended policy and districts are not required to make any changes but are encouraged to have conversations on these options.

On Thursday morning, Rock Ridge Public Schools sent a message from Superintendent Dr. Noel Schmidt to families addressing the district’s approach considering the new record-high rate.

“Straight-to-the-point: For now, we are continuing in hybrid learning in the high schools and in-person learning in the elementary schools,” Schmidt wrote. “However, the data are clearly heading in the wrong direction. Unless COVID-19 rates reverse in the near future, I can clearly see a scenario before the holidays where we will switch to distance learning in the high school and hybrid learning in the elementary schools.”

Schmidt went on to explain that although they are approaching three weeks of data to support this transition, the district is seeing a lower rate than is reflected by the greater SLC numbers.

“Currently we have 5 known COVID-19 cases among the students and 2 known COVID-19 cases among staff,” Schmidt added. “As far as we know, the vast majority of COVID-19 cases are coming from outside the school. Students and staff are not catching COVID-19 in the school setting.”

Instead, the virus is being spread through gatherings where social distancing and masking are not practiced.

Schmidt said he received a notice from the Minnesota Department of Education and MDH reminding districts that shifts to alternative learning models “should center on the impact of COVID-19 at the school level” while monitoring the community and county level data.

Cases have also been reported in students or staff at Mountain Iron-Buhl, Marquette Catholic School in Virginia, Grand Rapids High School, Ely, Northeast Range and Tower-Soudan.

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