REGIONAL- As Minnesota set a single day record for new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, county health officials are concerned about a record bi-weekly case rate for greater St. Louis County schools and the …
REGIONAL- As Minnesota set a single day record for new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, county health officials are concerned about a record bi-weekly case rate for greater St. Louis County schools and the unchecked spread of the coronavirus through community transmission.
The 3,483 new cases statewide reported on Tuesday by the Minnesota Department of Health brought the cumulative total of cases during the pandemic to 157,096. About 134,000 of those patients are considered “patients no longer needing isolation,” while 2,499 deaths have been attributed to COVID-19.
Cases continue to increase across the North Country as well. Zip code case data reported last Thursday revealed 12 new cases in Cook and seven new cases in Orr. Tower and Ely each had eight new cases, while Embarrass had the biggest jump with 14.
Positivity rates for testing continue to outpace the increase in tests administered, and according to St. Louis County Public Health Division Director Amy Westbrook, the rate of known and unknown community spread in the county is making it difficult to mount any effort to counter the virus.
“About 60 percent of our cases in greater St. Louis County are due to community transmission,” Westbrook said. “That includes cases where we know they are getting infected within a community setting from a lab confirmed case, and where individuals are getting infected without knowing where they’re getting it. That’s concerning when you have that rate increasing, because then it’s kind of unchecked spread.”
Cases resulting from community spread pose a problem when looking for ways to reverse the spread, Westbrook said, limiting health workers to focus primarily on more localized outbreaks associated with businesses and long-term care facilities. To deal with community transmission, the only route available is to continue reinforcing messaging about wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, and the potential hazard of gathering in small groups.
“I think a lot of people are doing really well at doing social distancing and wearing masks when they’re in the workplace,” Westbrook said. “I think that is pretty well a norm now. But the community norm isn’t there for wearing masks and social distancing in small social gatherings, and that’s where we’re seeing most of our transmission happen.”
In a Duluth-area teleconference last week, Westbook said it was important for people to consider how their behaviors may impact others in their social circles.
“We want people to think of their neighbors and friends who are vulnerable, who have chronic conditions,” she said. “You may or may not be showing symptoms. We talk about wanting to return to normal life, but there’s a trade-off here. If we want to keep communities thriving we need to practice those good behaviors.”
School rates rise
The bi-weekly case rate schools use to guide their decisions about safe learning models took a dramatic jump last week, with the rate for greater St. Louis County going from 25.5 to 37.6, a rate that eclipses that for Duluth-area schools for just the second time since the measure was implemented.
Schools are urged to consider transitioning their upper grades completely to distance learning and use a hybrid model of in-person and distance instruction for elementary grades at that rate, but decisions are made locally in consultation with health officials who can provide more specific data, Westbrook said.
Area districts are staying the course for now. Ely schools are already using a hybrid model for their upper grades, while elementary grades are using in-person instruction. ISD 2142 St. Louis County schools have continued with an in-person learning model for all grades, but that changed this week for the district’s Cherry location, which switched to full distance learning.
“We are doing a two -week reset for Cherry,” said Superintendent Reggie Engebritson. “We have too many staff out who are close contacts to be able to run the school efficiently. We have had six postive cases from last Tuesday to yesterday, which we would have been able to handle, but there are too many staff out because they are close contacts to either someone at school or in the community. We will return to in-person learning on Nov. 18.”
The Cherry situation forced the school to cancel Friday’s scheduled football game against Ely, forcing the Timberwolves to schedule a different opponent. Meanwhile, the North Woods Grizzlies football team will be idle Friday after their opponent, East Central, had to cancel due to COVID-19. The situation at East Central was similar to Cherry, with the school shifting to distance learning due to staffing shortages related to the virus.
Engebritson also confirmed that a second positive COVID-19 case has been identified at North Woods School. Engebritson said the individual has been out of the facility since Oct. 23 and that contact tracing determined there were no close contacts that required further intervention.
Engebritson also serves as superintendent for Mt. Iron-Buhl, which had to go to distance learning after a COVID-19 outbreak in its elementary school. She said that she’s constantly monitoring conditions across both districts and consulting with health officials.
“While I realize the numbers in the county might be going up, it doesn’t make sense to me to go to distance learning and put more kids out in the community during the school day just because of that one data point,” Engebritson said. “Kids belong in school and if we can keep them there, I think it’s in their best interest.”
That’s consistent with guidance from both health and education officials who have encouraged districts to use multiple sources of data before making a change to learning models, with the intent of minimizing major disruptions for children, staff, and families.
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