by CHRIS ROGERS
Winona County’s COVID-19 numbers have been improving for 10 days straight. If this keeps up — knock on wood — schools, some nursing homes, and other organizations may have the option to open up further. Health officials cautioned these positive signs are not a reason for citizens to relax their basic COVID-19 precautions and the numbers could all change quickly.
After a spike in mid- to late July, the number of new infections has been trending steadily downward in Winona County. The seven-day total of new cases has been declining since July 30, when it reached a relative high of 46 cases in one week, and it’s been hovering at 15-17 cases for the past six days. If that trend continues, this Thursday will mark two straight weeks of improving infection numbers — checking off one of the reopening criteria for many institutions.
As a starting point for reopening decisions that are left up to school districts, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH)
recommends that, in counties with a 14-day case rate of less than 10 new cases per 10,000 residents, schools should consider in-person education for all ages. Based on recent infection data from the MDH, Winona County just moved into that least restrictive category. The 14-day per capita rate was over 15 cases in July, but as of Tuesday fell to roughly 8.5, based on MDH case data and the latest U.S. Census population estimate. The MDH uses the same less-than-10-cases benchmark — among other criteria — in its new guidelines for nursing homes to consider allowing indoor visits.
The slowdown in Winona County comes as the rate of new COVID-19 infections has leveled off across Southeast Minnesota. This good news is no reason to stop practicing social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands, and staying home when sick, health officials cautioned.
“I think it’s great that we’re seeing more stability in Southeast Minnesota, but COVID-19 is spreading across the state and across the country. So while I think it’s totally appropriate to celebrate the progress and the reduced number of cases, we’re in no place where we can relax our vigilance in responding,” MDH Infectious Disease Division Director Kris Ehresmann said on Monday.
“We had no new cases today, which is very exciting, but as you and I both know, with the community spread of COVID-19, that could all change if people don’t continue to practice the COVID-19 precautions and hand hygiene,” Winona County Public Health Supervisor Melanie Tatge said.
County health officials reported mass exposure events in Lewiston and Winona last week, mostly sporting events, after eight people contracted the virus after attending. So far, there has not been a major outbreak of additional cases from those potential exposures, but it is still too soon to know for sure whether there will be additional cases from those events, Tatge explained.
Could the at least partial reopening of K-12 schools and local colleges change Winona County’s downward trend in infections? “It has the potential to,” Tatge stated. While recognizing schools and colleges for their diligent work to follow all state and federal guidelines, she noted that people in their 20s and 30s have made up a large share of the county’s recent infections. “If they don’t adhere to the COVID-19 precautions or the preventative measures, we could very well see an uptick,” Tatge said.
In Trempealeau County, the rate of new infections was steady, with 31 cases in the last seven days for a total of 353. There were no new deaths.
In Buffalo County, the rate of new infections has also been improving lately. There were two new cases in the last seven days, down from seven at the end of July.