REGIONAL- St. Louis County’s top health official cautioned Tuesday that while COVID-19 case counts in the county are rising at a slower pace than elsewhere in the state, people should assume …
REGIONAL- St. Louis County’s top health official cautioned Tuesday that while COVID-19 case counts in the county are rising at a slower pace than elsewhere in the state, people should assume that they can still be exposed to any of the coronavirus variants anywhere and at any time.
Public Health and Human Services Director Linnea Mirsch said that at the moment it’s difficult to determine a specific trend in the 43 new COVID cases recorded in the county in July, although overall the numbers are slightly higher than in previous weeks. Still, she said, two factors are likely major contributors.
“From June 29 to July 12, we had 19 new cases, but then immediately following, we had 19 cases in just three days,” Mirsch said. “That trend hasn’t continued at that level, so right now it’s just up and down.”
Numbers released by the Minnesota Department of Health on Tuesday showed 11 new COVID cases for the county from last Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
“I think it’s really important to note that 70 percent of those cases (in July) are in our Iron Range communities,” Mirsch said. “Because our case numbers have dropped, we’re not able to separate them out quite as much on a daily basis by geography (due to confidentiality concerns). But I think that’s really important to talk about. Thankfully, we haven’t had a new death reported in more than three weeks.”
Among the six North Country zip codes monitored by the Timberjay, two new cases in Orr reported by the state last week are the only new cases since three were reported in Ely on June 17.
Mirsch re-emphasized data from MDH showing that 99.9 percent of new COVID cases are among people who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19. Case increases around the state and country, and most likely in the county, have two major contributing factors, Mirsch said.
“It’s clear that both variants, and not adhering to COVID prevention measures, are driving increases,” she said. “The rise in variants is highlighting the fact that the pandemic isn’t over yet.”
State infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann confirmed on Tuesday that the more highly contagious Delta variant is now responsible for an estimated 75 percent of the cases in the state. The Delta variant is also associated with more serious illness in COVID-19 patients.
The rapid emergence of the Delta variant comes at a time when statewide vaccination rates have almost flatlined. Progress toward the goal of vaccinating 70 percent of Minnesotans age 16 and over with at least one shot has been measured in tenths of a percent in recent weeks, and currently stands at 67.9 percent.
Gov. Tim Walz and other state officials have for several weeks now largely ignored the state’s long-held and stubbornly elusive goal for vaccinations, instead touting a less lofty measure of achievement, that of reaching President Joe Biden’s goal of at least one vaccination for 70 percent of adults. Achieving Biden’s goal has been touted in releases announcing the closure of most state-operated vaccination facilities, including the one at the DECC in Duluth.
St. Louis County has also narrowed and retargeted its vaccination efforts, Mirsch said.
“There are areas where vaccination rates are lower and we’re targeting those with more outreach and vaccination drives,” she said. “All the research is showing how much work it takes to get each vaccination at this point, and it’s multiple conversations, usually with somebody that someone knows or is a trusted person, a medical provider or family who shares their story. We are still doing vaccination clinics, but we’re doing less and less because our uptake is really low.”
The shift away from clinics means a greater emphasis on making connections with people out in the community, in places where they might feel more at ease asking questions. So, county health personnel will be at upcoming county fairs and national “Night Out” observances the first week in August, including one in Ely.
“I think it’s a good time to connect with people who have questions, questions about variants, and to have opportunities to do vaccinations,” Mirsch said.
And Mirsch was emphatic that anyone who received a first dose of Pfizer or Moderna vaccines who skipped the second should still come back to get that final shot.
“Get fully vaccinated,” she said. “It’s not too late. Studies are showing that people have dramatically better odds of not getting sick, even from variants, once they’ve gotten that second dose.”
She also recommended that unvaccinated and partially vaccinated people follow the oft-repeated COVID precautionary measures.
“It’s the same simple precautions of wearing a mask, social distancing, avoiding large crowds, washing hands, and getting tested regularly,” Mirsch said.
The overall decline of the pandemic has led to shifts in the duties of county health department personnel to pick up on other important health-related needs, but in anticipation of the upcoming school year and all the questions surrounding it, Mirsch said the department will keep school specialist and public health educator Aubrie Hoover fully focused on helping schools.
“Especially with all the planning this fall, I think it will be very busy,” Mirsch said. “We hear from our schools the importance of having that partner interpreting data, interpreting guidance, and just being a local resource. Let’s all hope that job starts declining. I hope we’re in a better place by the winter.”