The inevitability of the coronavirus’ arrival to St. Louis County was never more evident than it was a year ago this week.
It was Saturday, March 21, 2020, when regional health officials delivered the livestreamed formalization of the county’s first confirmed COVID-19 case. As she spoke, Amy Westbrook, division director for St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services, the state of Minnesota was already in the grips of the pandemic with mitigation measures in place that halted many aspects of normal life.
The toll of the pandemic — the disruption, pain and loss — would be felt for the next 365-plus days, none more than during a massive surge in November, when Minnesota outpaced most other states in the nation for daily infection rates and the county suffered one of the highest case rates in the state.
Today, the also inevitable back end of the pandemic is starting to emerge.
More St. Louis County residents have now completed their vaccinations than those who were infected in Minnesota’s largest geographic county, and nearly 70,000 people received their first dose as of March 20.
Still, concern exists.
County health officials are receiving the same advice from the state Department of Health about the more infectious B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant that they did in the early days of the pandemic: Assume it is in your community.
Rising infection rates on the Iron Range — particularly among youth sports in Hibbing and on the East Range — prompted Westbrook to urge parents to have their children tested and raised alarm over reports that Hibbing parents were intentionally avoiding it.
“We’ve made it a year,” she wrote in the letter. “Returning to a sense of normalcy is coming into sight.”
St. Louis County has reported more than 15,000 total cases of COVID-19 since March of last year, 289 deaths and more than 95% of those infected out of isolation. It’s been almost a month since the county’s last reported death from the virus and the MDH, on Monday, reported no new statewide deaths for the first time in over a year. On Tuesday, seven deaths were reported by the agency.
According to the St. Louis County COVID-19 Dashboard, more than 68,000 residents have received at least one vaccination dose and more than 40,000 have completed their inoculations. A county spokesperson said those numbers amount to 30% of residents, 40% above the age of 18 and 80% of those 65 and older.
Those rates compare well to statewide figures, which have remained largely flat at about 40,000 per day, but rank toward the top of the list for states administering vaccinations per capita. According to APM Reports and its vaccine tracker, Inoculation Nation, Minnesota is fourth among states with 90.4% of its vaccine doses administered and 15th in the race for herd immunity with 26.8% of residents immunized.
The APM model shows Minnesota, at its current immunization rate measured over the last two weeks, could reach the commonly regarded 70% resident vaccination rate for herd immunity by June. At its mid-December rate, when fewer doses were available and rollout by the state government was slowed, the projected herd immunity date fell to September.
Health officials have expressed increasing anxiety over new variants, primarily the more contagious B.1.1.7 strain first described in the United Kingdom, which they suspect has contributed to a recent rise in cases and has been tied to youth sports in regions like St. Louis and Carver counties.
St. Louis County and state health departments reported that infection rates have plummeted since their peak in November and December, and fell off more in February, to the point that Gov. Tim Walz loosened restrictions to levels not seen since before mitigation measures were first activated last year.
New regional outbreaks, however, have bumped infection and hospitalization rates back to January levels across Minnesota. In St. Louis County, officials reported that central and northern parts of the county mirrored the statewide trend and recently returned to January rates, prompting MDH to hold a two-day testing event in Aurora that concluded Tuesday.
On Tuesday, MDH said there are 479 confirmed cases of the U.K. variant in Minnesota and a driver of new COVID-19 infections. Dr. Ruth Lynfield, state epidemiologist told reporters “It is already dominating,” within the new caseloads.
Dr. Amanda Noska, an infectious disease specialist at Essentia Health, who recently spoke at a virtual community event last week, said traveling is the easiest way to spread new strains across the U.S. and within different parts of the state. Minnesota health officials have equally cautioned against off-field team activities that go hand-in-hand with youth sports — sleepovers, team dinners, etc. — to prevent the recent spread of COVID-19 and its variants.
While the available vaccines have proven effective against the strains, it’s essentially a race to vaccinate Minnesotans fast enough to avoid another, more contagious surge.
“None of us really know if we’re going to have a spike,” Noska said. “It largely depends on human behavior and vaccine efficacy.”