Amy Westbrook, director of St. Louis County Public Health Division, joined the governor’s roundtable Wednesday to describe how COVID-19 has impacted the 200,000 residents of the largest geographic county in the state.

She joined Gov. Tim Walz, State Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm and a group of physicians, policymakers and people once infected with the virus when describing how the county last month reported roughly 50 percent of its cases and deaths. “September has been a very difficult month in terms of community transmission for us,” Westbrook said. “That’s primarily because community transmission is now pervading into our long-term care facilities. So, dramatically our long-term care facilities are being hard-hit by this virus because of the transmission we’re seeing in our community.”

The Minnesota Health Department announced Wednesday that 20 more individuals had tested positive for COVID-19 in the county, bringing the total to 2,029. Fifty-two individuals in the county have died of coronavirus-related effects.

The dashboard also showed that a 1 year old has become the youngest person in the county hospitalized with the coronavirus, as first reported in the Duluth News Tribune.

Most of the people infected are between the ages of 20-24 and 15-19, while the majority of deaths occur in individuals over the age of 70, a troubling note in a region with a large aging population where numerous cases have been reported in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.

St. Louis County has named 10 facilities on the state’s listing of “congregate care facilities with exposures,” including Guardian Angels Health and Rehabilitation Center in Hibbing, Heritage Manor in Chisholm, The Waterview Pines in Virginia, The Waterview Woods in Eveleth and Carefree Living and Boundary Waters Care Center, both in Ely.

Westbrook advised county residents to follow mask-wearing and social distance guidelines from the governor, state Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We really want people to have that social interaction, but we are seeing people be more complacent with community gatherings and social interactions,” she said. “Those are critical, because when we see community transmission increase, what we have is our health behaviors and what we have is each other to combat it.”

She told the media that St. Louis County has been partnering with the state Health Department and health care to make testing accessible for residents, including Tuesday’s free-testing event held in Ely and a new Duluth-based COVID-19 saliva testing site.

The governor’s roundtable came after President Donald Trump tested positive for the coronavirus last Thursday, spent three subsequent days in the hospital, received oxygen, steroids and antibody treatment and then tweeted, “Don’t be afraid of Covid,” on Monday, before returning to the White House. “Don’t let it dominate your life.”

When asked whether the number of cases had increased since Trump’s Duluth rally, she said it was “still pretty early” and more testing needed to be done. “The large event was on Wednesday evening and we’re encouraging people to certainly be tested if they have symptoms and then also to consider getting tested five to seven days after the event which would be yesterday, today, tomorrow,” she said. “I’m guessing we’ll be having more data come if we do see more cases associated with the rally the next few days.”

Walz appeared at the event the same day the state reported more than 100,000 coronavirus cases and his plans to extend his peacetime state of emergency, which means another special session of the Minnesota Legislature. “The question I get asked a lot is ‘Governor, when are you going to take the mask mandate off? When are you going to open up bars?’” he said. “And my response seems to fall somewhat flat when I say, ‘The virus dictates when we’re going to do this and our response to the virus is going to dictate how quickly that gets done. One of the decisions I have to make is we’re trying to strike that proper balance.’”

Data from the state Health Department on Wednesday showed there were 14 coronavirus-related deaths and 918 new cases statewide, increasing the totals to 2,101 deaths and 106,651 infections for the year.

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