REGIONAL- National news outlets have been painting grim pictures of potential COVID-19 pandemic disasters as hard-hit urban areas reopen to hoards of people ignoring recommendations for continued …
REGIONAL- National news outlets have been painting grim pictures of potential COVID-19 pandemic disasters as hard-hit urban areas reopen to hoards of people ignoring recommendations for continued social distancing and wearing face masks, stoking fears of a potential second wave and new shut-downs.
Far from metropolitan hot spots, similar behaviors are to be seen here in the rural north lands. Masks are the exception rather than the rule as people venture back out into stores and restaurants. While restaurants and bars have limited capacity and have made arrangements to provide for social distancing, it’s common nonetheless to see patrons congregating in non-family groups to greet each other and socializing after weeks of isolation.
Engage locals in conversations about preventive measures, and you may hear phrases like, “We don’t need to worry about it up here,” “It’s only old people in nursing homes who are at risk,” and “It’s everyone’s personal responsibility if they think they’re at risk.”
While running counter to the guidance of the CDC and state and local health officials, people may be erroneously drawing on the relative success St. Louis County has had in avoiding major impacts from COVID-19, as well as the manner in which the virus is playing out across the state.
“I can understand why people feel like it’s over – it’s nice out, fewer people are getting sick,” said Amy Westbrook, Public Health Division Director for St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services Department. “I think we’re doing a good job at things like social distancing and adhering to the governor’s orders, and I think that’s a big part of why we’ve seen our numbers decrease.”
However, backtracking on those practices now is cause for concern.
“If we change what we’ve been doing as a community, which has been good social distancing, good prevention and control, good health behaviors, those numbers may change quickly.”
For the time being, COVID-19 appears to have reached a plateau in the county. As of May 13, 100 cases and 12 deaths had been recorded in St. Louis County. A month later, only 23 cases and two deaths have been added to those totals. In the north lands region, the Timberjay has reported just two identified cases, one in Ely and one in Tower.
Another key indicator, hospitalizations, is also encouraging. As of June 12, only one COVID-19 patient in St. Louis County was hospitalized, and they were not in intensive care.
Over half of those infected in the county have been people living in congregate living facilities (41 percent) or have been health care workers (15 percent).
While Westbrook acknowledged the numbers are encouraging, she cautioned against people becoming complacent.
“It’s a pandemic, so it’s not going away,” she said. “It’s a new virus that’s out there that none of us have ever seen before until recently. This one especially is very contagious. It’s easy to get and easy to think that we’re not spreading it, but we should still as a community be very cautious.”
Summer is tourist season in the north lands, and although all major community festivals have been canceled, bountiful outdoor recreation facilities and summer lake homes and resorts hold the possibility of introducing sources of infection.
“Certainly, lots of people like to go north for the summer, so there is potential for others to come in from outside our towns and communities,” Westbrook said. “We don’t know if they’re coming from places that have higher incidence, but just having people from more areas can increase the risk of transmission and infection.”
One thing communities can do to counter the possible threat is to continue modeling appropriate preventive measures such as social distancing and wearing masks, Westbrook said.
“If our community has the expectation of each other to practice those good health behaviors and requests, or highly encourages, or even requires a mask to enter a business facility, that will be followed by any tourist coming in,” she said. “It’s really a standard the community sets.”
The mistaken belief that coronavirus is a disease that affects primarily older adults is one likely driven by the attention given to deaths from the disease. Long-term care deaths from COVID-19 account for about 80 percent of deaths statewide, and outbreaks in congregate living facilities have received extensive media attention as well.
However, those most likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19 are younger, Westbrook said.
“We have a slightly lower median age for our cases in St. Louis County,” she said. “The bulk of people are 20 to 39, and a few years higher than that. Our greatest numbers [of infections] are in those young adult and mid-year adult populations.”
And while urban areas have borne the brunt of the pandemic thus far, Westbrook noted that rural areas in Minnesota, in neighboring states, and across the country have been reporting an uptick in cases.
“We have had cases reported in both urban and rural settings across our county,” she said. “If people are thinking it’s a city problem, that’s just not true, and that’s not borne out in the data, either.”