A recent coronavirus cluster in Ely accounted for 15% of St. Louis County’s COVID-19 caseload in the past week, prompting the health department to send its third reminder to as many Iron Range cities about testing and quarantining guidelines, health officials said.

Ely, a city of roughly 3,400 residents, reported 33 of the county’s total of 214 cases between March 18-24, equaling 15.4%. Large gatherings and youth sports were singled out as the driving factors of the increased infection rate, also mirroring regional and statewide trends.

As of Wednesday, St. Louis County had totals of 15,459 cases and 289 deaths since the pandemic arrived in the state’s largest geographic county.

"We know people are tired, and probably have been experiencing information overload about COVID precautions this past year," said Amy Westbrook, director of St. Louis County Public Health in a press release Wednesday. "But outbreaks such as what we've seen in several of our communities in the last two weeks makes it very clear that we can't let our guard down yet.”

The city’s rising COVID-19 numbers follow a trend of rapidly slowing infection rates in the southern portion of the county since February. Meantime, communities in central and northern parts of the state including Ely and other Range cities have been experiencing infection rates last seen in January.

The county hasn’t added to its virus death toll in almost a month, but the recent increases in local cases are largely tied to the 5-19 age group, while health officials caution new, more contagious variants of the virus are likely in the community. St. Louis County reported 29 new COVID-19 cases and zero deaths Wednesday.

County health officials issued letters last week to Hibbing and Mesabi East school district families, reminding them of student testing guidelines that suggest student-athletes be tested weekly and students not in athletics every two weeks.

The Hibbing school district totaled 11 new infections and reported more than 100 students and staff away from school. Mesabi East schools had 15 confirmed cases, and the Minnesota Department of Health responded with a two-day pop-up testing site in Aurora earlier this week.

In a letter specific to Hibbing families, county health officials urged more testing of students and raised concerns over reports parents were intentionally avoiding it.

Ely Public Schools reported 21 cases within the district — 18 linked to Memorial High School and three to Washington Elementary — and county health officials advised a two-week reset that sent students in grades 6-12 back to distance learning until April 6, if case numbers recede.

Aside from student guidelines, coronavirus testing is advised for anyone experiencing symptoms, a close contact to a confirmed case (if asymptomatic, wait 5-7 days after exposure) and those who attended a large gathering or indoor event.

Close contact is defined by the county as being within 6 feet for 15 minutes or longer, and regardless of symptoms, a 14-day quarantine period is suggested. The exception is for residents fully vaccinated, who don’t need to quarantine if they are asymptomatic after exposure.

Currently, testing is available through Essentia Health Ely and free at-home saliva kits from Vault. Schools and the county public health division are also working to provide tests for symptomatic students. The at-home saliva kits and more testing sites can be found through the MDH website.

Three coronavirus vaccine types are available in St. Louis County: A two-shot dose of Pfizer or Moderna to achieve full vaccination protection and a one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Immunization rates across the county remain high with 30% of the population receiving at least one dose, 40% of people ages 18 and over and more than 80% of people 65 and older.

Minnesota ranks first in the U.S. for vaccines administered, according to the Centers for Disease and Prevention Control, and county health officials are soon expected to begin vaccinating the Phase 1C group that includes essential workers in media, public safety, construction, transportation and other sectors.

Still, Westbrook said, the door is open for COVID-19 to continue its spread as inoculations continue.

“Vaccinations are making a difference, but we still must all remain vigilant and do our part to minimize the spread of this virus,” she added.

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