REGIONAL- St. Louis County health officials followed the lead of the state Department of Health on Monday by issuing a recommendation that everyone, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in …
REGIONAL- St. Louis County health officials followed the lead of the state Department of Health on Monday by issuing a recommendation that everyone, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor public settings, after the county was among 30 in the state added to the “substantial transmission” list for COVID spread by the Centers for Disease Control.
“We’re not completely surprised,” said county Public Health Director Amy Westbrook of the upgraded CDC designation. “It means that we’re in a place where transmission is occurring in a way that is very difficult to prevent and control just through regular everyday activity or what we’re doing as a public health system. It’s sort of unchecked, if you will, and that’s concerning.”
Westbrook said that the county’s recommendation is in response to an immunization rate that falls short of providing community-wide protection.
“Because we are not at a vaccination coverage rate that is giving us herd immunity, we have to go back to our other interventions, which is in this case masking,” Westbrook said. “It’s really unfortunate because this is preventable, we have a vaccine that’s highly effective. People don’t want to go back to wearing masks. I don’t want to go back to wearing masks. The best way to get out of it is to increase our vaccination rate.”
The seven-day case average in St. Louis County jumped significantly in July, from just 1 on July 8 to 14.1 on Aug. 2.
“With the Delta variant, we’re not any different than the rest of the state,” Westbrook said. “We’re seeing increased cases. All cases aren’t sequenced for the type of variant they are, but we’re seeing delta across the state, and we don’t think it’s any different in St. Louis County.”
State health officials said on Monday that the delta variant now accounts for 85 percent of new COVID cases, almost all occurring in unvaccinated individuals.
But because the county roughly mirrors the statewide vaccination rate of 67 percent of people 12 and older with at least one shot, chances are that there won’t be a repeat of the runaway numbers of last fall and winter.
“It’s not quite as high as we were seeing last August and September,” Westbrook said. “I don’t think it’s going to increase to the point where we were last fall. That would be surprising to me. And we haven’t seen our deaths in our hospitalizations increase along with case rates, so we’re hoping that doesn’t come.”
In a county as geographically large as this, it’s also no surprise that vaccination rates are uneven. Westbrook said.
“We do know that vaccination rates vary across the county and certainly within different populations,” she said. “We target our vaccine interventions and opportunities, trying to make it as available and accessible as we possibly can across the county, with additional attention to those communities that are have a lower vaccination rate. Generally speaking, the central part of our county and southwest part of our county have lower vaccination rates.”
Trying to build on the 70-percent adult vaccination milestone, Gov. Tim Walz last week announced a new $100 gift card incentive program to encourage people who haven’t to get vaccinated by Aug. 15.
“We have made so much progress to combat this virus,” Walz said. “We cannot give up ground now, especially with students returning to the classroom this fall. Getting paid $100 to keep your family safe is a pretty good deal.”
At a Monday press conference, state health commissioner Jan Malcolm noted that a family of five eligible-but-unvaccinated individuals could pocket $500 if they get their first doses of vaccine between July 30 and Aug. 15.
Last week also marked the kickoff of a “Vax to School” vaccination campaign to encourage students and families to get fully vaccinated by the beginning of the school year in September. It takes five weeks from receiving the first dose of Pfizer vaccine, the only one approved for those 12 and older, to become fully vaccinated.
“These vaccines work,” Walz said. “We’re preventing severe illness and reducing the spread of the virus with every vaccine we administer. Our students, educators, and school staff deserve this level of protection as they head back to the classrooms this fall.”
Over the next month, the campaign will highlight voices from educators, pediatricians, and parents on the safety and critical need to get eligible students vaccinated.
While Minnesota remains among the lower tier of states in the increasing number of new COVID cases, Malcom said that the increase in counties on the CDC substantial or high transmission list going up from 14 to 44 was a clear indication that cases are again on the rise.
“Almost half of the cases in the last two months have been identified in the last two weeks,” she said. “Similarly, of all the hospitalized cases that have happened in the past two months, just about a third of those cases have happened in the last two weeks.”
There has been no significant increase in reported deaths yet, Malcolm said, but she cautioned that deaths naturally lag behind infections and hospitalizations, so the state could still see an increase.
“We do share CDC’s concern about rising case numbers and about the importance of the Delta variant, and we have recommended that Minnesotans follow the CDC recommendations to wear masks when in an indoor public setting when you’re in an area seeing substantial or high rates of COVID-19 transmission,” Malcolm said. “But the best thing we can do is to make sure that we and our family members are vaccinated as soon as we become eligible.”