REGIONAL- With decisions about COVID-19 protocols in Minnesota schools left up to local districts this year, state officials on Tuesday unveiled details of an expanded free testing program they hope …
REGIONAL- With decisions about COVID-19 protocols in Minnesota schools left up to local districts this year, state officials on Tuesday unveiled details of an expanded free testing program they hope will help keep children and staff in school and COVID-free.
The new measure comes as more than half of the state’s 5,000-plus pediatric COVID cases diagnosed since mid-June have come in August, according to health commissioner Jan Malcolm.
“Nearly 3,000 of those cases were detected in the most recent two weeks,” Malcolm said in a Tuesday press conference.
And while the North Country hasn’t experienced a large surge in COVID cases, the bi-weekly case rate used by schools as a gauge of community transmission now stands at 13 in northern St. Louis County, the highest among the county’s three regions. Last year, that number was above the threshold for schools to shift from in-person to hybrid learning models.
With the highly-contagious Delta variant now accounting for 95 percent of the new COVID cases in Minnesota and the start of school fall sports practices this week, the timing was good for the new state testing support.
Education commissioner Heather Mueller said that schools will have a choice of receiving saliva, nasal, or rapid tests.
“We are excited to be able to provide testing options for public school districts, charter schools, tribal schools and nonpublic schools across the state,” she said. “It’s up to local communities to decide which is best for their students and educators.”
State grants are also available to schools who implement testing programs to subsidize associated personnel and materials costs, Mueller said.
Testing is not mandated, but is highly recommended, particularly for students and staff who are unvaccinated. Federal and state guidelines recommend that unvaccinated students and staff be tested weekly, and those involved in activities like sports even more frequently. If vaccinated individuals exhibit symptoms, they should also be tested, according to state and federal guidelines.
While the Tuesday afternoon announcement was too soon for ISD 2142 Superintendent Reggie Engebritson to say how her district would utilize the program, she was pleased that the district has options to consider.
“Especially with some COVID symptoms mimicking other things like colds and allergies, it would be nice if we could provide the rapid tests to possibly rule out COVID and get kids back in school sooner who are sent home with symptoms,” Engebritson said.
As previously reported, ISD 2142 will start the school year without a mask mandate, but will strongly recommend that students, staff, and visitors wear them.
Last Thursday’s weekly COVID case report contained potentially concerning news for those in the Ely zip code area, as 12 new cases were reported over the prior week. Ely had not experienced a double-digit increase in weekly cases since the last week of March, coming at the end of a month-long surge of 75 new cases.
Five new cases also were reported in Tower, while Orr and Embarrass each reported two new cases. Out of caution due to the prevalence of the Delta variant and increased cases, the Lake Vermilion Cultural Center canceled its upcoming Aug. 28 benefit event, “Midsummer in Norway 2021.”
State officials reported a continuing increase in the rate of vaccinations across the state, including an encouraging uptick among those ages 12 to 19.
“We’re really pleased to see the 12 to 15 group pop up a full three percentage points just in the last week,” Malcolm said.
Last week the state surpassed its goal of 70 percent of those 16 and older with at least one vaccination, a goal originally set for July 1. Malcom continued to encourage vaccinations for those who haven’t had them, noting that case rates now are higher than they were last year at this time.
“Our case rates are 54 percent higher,” she said.
Malcolm also touted the success of the state’s $100 gift card incentive for first vaccination shots and noted that the program has been extended through Sunday, Aug. 22. Anyone who received their first dose between July 30 and Aug. 22 is eligible to apply for the reward at https://mn.gov/covid19/100/.
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