IRON RANGE — St. Louis County health officials on Friday warned of recent surge in coronavirus cases on the Iron Range and urged caution in the area.

In September, cases in Duluth surged and were linked to college students living off-campus, but in October that surge shifted to Greater St. Louis County, where 41 percent of the region’s confirmed cases occurred in the last month. This includes all areas in the county excluding Duluth, Hermantown, Proctor and Saginaw.

One possible reason for the surge, said Amy Westbrook, the county Public Health Division Director, is “COVID fatigue” — where social distancing, hand washing and masking guidelines are beginning to be ignored.

“COVID fatigue is real. We know that and are feeling it ourselves,” Westbrook said. "But we are seeing significant transmission of this virus through community spread, and we need everyone to continue being careful. Social distance or avoid small gatherings. Wear a mask if you can't social distance — even when around extended family and friends. And absolutely stay home if you're sick."

According to the county, 25 percent of the cases are attributed to contact with a confirmed case, and 28.5 percent are community spread with no identified source of exposure. An additional 11 percent of patients said they attended a community event or social gathering.

Most alarming, Westbrook continued, is the spike in area deaths. During the pandemic’s first five months, there was just one COVID-related death reported in Greater St. Louis County. Since Sept. 1, that number has since jumped by 31 deaths.

Countywide, serious cases requiring hospitalization are at an all-time high. On Friday, the county reported 23 people were hospitalized with seven in intensive care. This follows a Star Tribune report that Duluth hospitals are operating at almost full capacity.

"Our priority is to ensure our medical partners don't get overwhelmed," Westbrook added. "And we know many are concerned and wanting to ensure kids are able to go to school and participate in sports and other activities. The solution to both is the same - stay vigilant at all times."

Across the state, the Minnesota Department of Health reported 1,721 new cases of COVID-19 — 51 in St. Louis County — and 13 deaths caused by the virus.

Meanwhile, in Greater St. Louis County, school systems have been reporting a continuous uptick in COVID-19 cases among students, according to a press release from Itasca County on Thursday.

Between Sept. 27-Oct. 10, St. Louis County schools had a rate of 25.5 per 10,000 residents in the area, per a county news release Thursday. County-wide the number is 29.84. For the same period, Itasca County had a rate of 51.77.

“Over the past seven days, 67 Itasca residents received positive diagnoses, compared to 115 over the previous seven days,” the press release reads.

The Minnesota Health Department recommends all grades transition to the hybrid learning model when the rate is 20-29 per 10,000 residents.

Hibbing Superintendent Richard Aldrich noted on Thursday his K-6 student will remain in-person and 7-12 students will remain hybrid. “We will not be changing,” Aldrich wrote in an email. “We have adopted in our Restart Plan the use of 3 weeks of data and consultation with MDH as a requirement to change learning models. The decision will be made by identifying the impact of the county number on our district, buildings and classrooms.”

Meantime, Itasca County remains in a hybrid model. For now, the Greenway school district remains hybrid for grades 5-12 and in-person for grades PK-4. Deer River High School and King Elementary are both operating in the hybrid model. Big Fork and Grand Rapids are fully hybrid in the older, as well.

Two weeks ago, Itasca school superintendents issued a public plea seeking community support in reducing COVID-19 levels so that there would still be flexibility in learning options. “We want our kids in school as much as possible,” according to a joint letter from superintendents. “We know of only one way that gives us the best chance at safely keeping our kids in school, sports, and activities.”

Earlier this month, the Nashwauk-Keewatin school system on Oct. 5 moved models with all grades to hybrid learning. “This pivot to N-K Phase 3 is not something we want to do, but must do because of the recent spread of COVID-19 in our local communities,” Brenda Spartz, the superintendent and high school principal, said. “Everyone can do their part in helping us stay in school by always wearing masks in public spaces, washing hands frequently, staying home if you have signs/symptoms of illness, and maintaining social distancing from others. Thank you for your continued support.”

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