by CHRIS ROGERS
Coronavirus infections were trending down in Winona County. Then, on Friday, the county reported 40 new cases in one day.
The uptick coincides with a rise in cases statewide. Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) leaders sounded alarm bells today as Minnesota set a one-day record for new infections. However, on a local level, it’s not clear whether Friday’s jump in infections is a fluke or a sign.
Winona County Health and Human Services Director Karen Sanness said Friday’s uptick was not the result of the new saliva testing site in Winona because nearly all 40 positive results were from samples taken before the testing site opened on Wednesday. Data released by Winona County Public Health indicates the infections were spread fairly evenly among people of all ages, from the children not yet in kindergarten to people in their 80s.
“I have no idea how we go from zero one day to 40 the next,” Sanness said. “There’s no rhyme or reason, and it’s all age groups. It’s not just the college population; it is all over the place.”
Sanness hypothesized that the increased community transmission could be the result of spread from neighboring Wisconsin. Winona County health officials have been expecting surges in cases in Wisconsin this fall would eventually work their way into Winona, she stated.
After wavering between 80-100 cases a week throughout October, Winona County’s seven-day case total had fallen to just 58 on Thursday. Friday’s figures brought the seven-day total back up to 85. With an average of 24 cases per day per 100,000 residents, transmission in Winona County is high but not severe, according to Harvard’s COVID tracker. “We’re concerned when we see a big increase in cases, but alarms aren’t going off quite at this point yet,” Sanness stated.
Also today, the MDH reported an outbreak — meaning at least one case of COVID-19 — at the Lewiston Senior Living, an assisted living facility. At press time, the company had not yet responded to questions.
Numerous local nursing homes and assisted living facilities have had asymptomatic staff test positive for the virus, but they’ve done a good job of containing those cases and keeping residents safe, Sanness stated.
County tops threshold for virtual high school
Yesterday, MDH released the latest 14-day per capita case rate for Winona County. It rose from 29.5 to 32.3. At 30 cases per capita or more, MDH recommends school districts consider distance learning only for middle and high schools. Winona Area Public Schools’ middle and high schools are currently practicing a mix of virtual and in-person classes.
The MDH’s official 14-day case rates are based on two-week-old data to allow for lagging test results. A less accurate but more up-to-date measure — the number of cases per capita reported in the last 14 days — also puts Winona County above the 30-case threshold, with 34 cases per capita.
Infections rise in Buffalo County
Buffalo County’s infections steadily climbed this week, reaching a seven-day total of 28, up from 18 last week and the highest in a month and a half. With an average of 31 new cases per day per 100,000 residents, Buffalo County is now in the Harvard COVID tracker’s highest risk category for transmission.
Trempealeau County and La Crosse County also have very high rates of transmission — 33 and 28 cases per day per 100,000 residents, respectively. However, the speed of the virus’ spread was stable in those counties. Trempealeau County had 68 new cases this week, on par with 69 last week. La Crosse County had 232 cases this week and 241 last week.
MDH warns of statewide spread
“We’re at a pivotal point,” MDH Commissioner Jan Malcolm said on Friday, pointing to rising infections, hospitalizations, and deaths in states bordering Minnesota and warning signs that something similar could be brewing in Minnesota. “We have to stay vigilant,” she stated. Although the pandemic is wearing on everyone, it is crucial for every Minnesotan to follow basic COVID precautions: Wear masks, stay six feet apart, avoid crowds, wash your hands, and stay home when sick, she urged. “If everyone does their part we really can shift the course in a positive direction for the state of Minnesota,” Malcolm said.
MDH Infectious Disease Division Director Kris Ehresmann and Jennifer DeCubellis, CEO of the Twin Cities-based hospital group, Hennepin Health Care, pointed to data on a growing number of health care workers being exposed to COVID-19 through community transmission. The high level of community spread is exposing off-duty health care workers to COVID, forcing them into quarantine, and keeping them off the job, Ehresmann and DeCubellis said. “Bed capacity is not our challenge in Minnesota. It’s keeping our hospitals and health care system staffed,” DeCubellis stated. Do your part to reduce the virus’ spread so hospitals can care for sick people, they urged. “Our job is to take care of you when you need us most, and we need you now. Masks are not political. They are essential,” DeCubellis said.