by CHRIS ROGERS
With 40 cases in one day this Thursday and 24 more on Friday, coronavirus infection rates in Winona County are now nearly as high as the county’s late-August peak. Infections per week have wavered from the 60s to the 110s this month, but rose to 126 on Friday.
While college-age Winonans drove the late August-early September spike, this month infections have been spread evenly across residents of all ages, and smaller cities like Lewiston, St. Charles, and Rollingstone are getting their share of infections, too.
The virus appears to be spreading in a variety of settings. Winona County Public Health Supervisor Melanie Tatge said a growing share of cases are from community transmission, meaning there were so many ways COVID-positive residents could have gotten infected, it’s not possible for public health officials to narrow down exactly how.
That mirrors the statewide picture. “The growth that we’re seeing isn’t just caused by one or two big events,” Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Commissioner Jan Malcolm said on Thursday. “It’s driven by literally thousands of seemingly small decisions people are making every day without realizing the full impact those decisions are having on their families, their neighbors, and their community. We’re seeing that these small, everyday gatherings and activities are leading to infections that are then spreading to long-term care facilities, hospitals, schools, school sports, businesses and more.”
In this pandemic, everything is connected, and a flare up of infections in one part of a community can seriously affect other parts of the community. College-age cases fueling broader spread in Winona is one example; there was another in Lewiston this week. An outbreak at a local business contributed to infections at Lewiston-Altura School District and influenced the district’s decision to switch to distance-only learning. Meanwhile, state officials have been highlighting how many health care workers have been getting infected and exposed — not at their workplaces, but from friends, friends of friends, community members, and family members. The number of health care workers in quarantine or isolation as a result of community transmission could seriously stress hospital and nursing-home staffing capacity as winter progresses, Ehresmann said.
“What we do in our homes, what people do when they’re at work, when they’re shopping — all of that affects other parts of the community,” Tatge stated.
“I know so many Minnesotans are trying to find the right balance between the need for social connections and COVID-19 precautions, but the level of virus that’s out there now means the very things we were doing a couple of months ago — that were less risky then with less disease circulating in the community — are riskier now,” Malcolm said. “And we just keep urging people to step up their efforts to follow the guidelines for social distancing, wearing masks, avoiding large gatherings, and staying home when sick and seeking testing.” She added, “Enough people are unaware of this guidance or unconvinced by the importance of the guidance that it’s fueling lots and lots of this spread.” If each and every citizen takes COVID precautions seriously, Minnesota can avoid the worst of the surging infections, hospitalizations, and deaths neighboring states are experiencing, Malcolm stated.
Elsewhere in Southeast Minnesota, Wabasha County had its first COVID-19 death on Thursday, a resident in their lower 80s. Houston County’s second fatality was reported on Friday, an individual in their late 80s. Infections surged in Houston County, with 54 new cases this week, up from 21 last week. Wabasha County had 69 new infections this week, up from 60 last week and 46 the week before.
More information about how to protect yourself and others from COVID-19 is available at www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/coronavirus/prevention.html. MDH recommendations for holiday safety may be found at www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/coronavirus/holidays.html.
Trempealeau Co. urges caution amid soaring infections
“With the increase in cases, hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19, we urge you to stay home,” Trempealeau County Health Department Public Information Officer Kaila Baer said on Wednesday.
Trempealeau County keeps setting records for its highest number of cases in one week, with 140 cases as of Friday, up from 119 last week. That puts the county at a whopping 67 cases per day per 100,000 residents, according to state data. Two more Trempealeau County residents died from COVID-19 this week, the county’s third and fourth deaths, and four local COVID patients are in the hospital, Baer reported.
“Traditional trick-or-treat, trunk-or-treat, and Halloween parties are risky this year due to the current spread of COVID-19 in Trempealeau County,” Baer cautioned. She encouraged resident to hold virtual costume parties or show off their costumes and decorations over social media instead.
Buffalo County surge overwhelms contact tracing
For its size, Buffalo County is seeing even faster spread than Trempealeau County. There were 74 new cases this week, nearly double last week’s 38 new infections. Per 100,000 residents, Buffalo County is now averaging 80 cases per day, according to state data.
“With this increase in activity, we encourage residents to stay home as much as possible and continue safe practices,” Buffalo County health officials advised. “Only leave your home for the essentials. Avoid contact with people outside your household. Cancel travel and find alternatives to in-person gatherings. Support local businesses by ordering take-out for a meal or picking up items curbside. Avoid locations that are not following recommendations on masks, physical distancing, and capacity limits. Consider safer alternatives to upcoming traditional holiday gatherings. Talk to your friends and family about the importance of these safety precautions. As always, wash your hands, stay home if you are sick, wear a mask, practice social distancing, and clean frequently touched surfaces.”
Buffalo County officials reported that the surge has overwhelmed their capacity for contact tracing: that is, warning people who were exposed to an infectious, COVID-positive person. They called on people who test positive to help notify their own contacts. “We ask any newly diagnosed person with COVID-19 to personally notify anyone they have had close contact with about their positive test result and direct their contacts to quarantine for 14 days since their last contact with the positive,” Buffalo County health officials wrote on social media. “This notification should be shared with any person in contact with the positive case while they had symptoms AND during the 48 hours before symptoms developed.”
WSU flattened the curve
WSU students accounted for the vast majority of Winona’s end of August spike — largely because of off-campus activity, university leaders said. For a couple weeks in September, the surge brought WSU near the edge of being forced to switch to virtual-only learning. In response, WSU called off nearly all in-person events for a two-week “quarantine,” doubled down on COVID safety education, starting issuing warnings to students who didn’t follow the rules, and the city of Winona stepped up COVID safety checks at local bars.
Now, infections among students and staff at WSU are dramatically down. From October 11-25, there were just 25 new infections — less than two per day. Per capita, infections among WSU’s student body are now a hair lower than the county as a whole.
“I have to give a lot of the credit to the students,” WSU President Scott Olson said. “We asked them to go into quarantine, and after the quarantine we said, ‘Folks, keep the belt tight, keep the masks on, keep the social distance,’ and they really stepped up.” In a sign of what was at stake for WSU and Winona’s economy, Martin Luther College in New Ulm, Minn., recently joined the list of colleges that made an abrupt shift to distance learning following campus outbreaks. “The choice the students saw was: Have all the fun you want now, but realize it’s going to be a very short semester indeed, or, on the other hand ,do some social distancing, wear a mask, and wash your hands … And in doing those things maybe have as close to a regular semester as possible,” Olson stated. There are still some problems, but by and large, students chose the later, he said.
At Saint Mary’s University (SMU) and Minnesota State College Southeast, infections have remained very low, with 10 cases in the last two weeks at SMU and three at Southeast.