REGIONAL- A March spike in COVID-19 cases in Ely is on the decline, but health officials continued to sound the alarm on Tuesday over increasing cases and hospitalizations statewide.A key measure of …
REGIONAL- A March spike in COVID-19 cases in Ely is on the decline, but health officials continued to sound the alarm on Tuesday over increasing cases and hospitalizations statewide.
A key measure of COVID activity, the seven-day case average, hit 39.8 on March 22, the highest in northern St. Louis County since Dec. 9. However, since then, the rate has dropped by more than half, and was sitting at 15.9 on March 31, the most recent county data available.
The Ely outbreak accounted for 70 percent of the cases in northern St. Louis County in March, according to county communications manager Dana Kazel. However, the number of new cases in Ely dipped last week to 18, or about half the number of cases reported in the prior week. Minnesota Department of Health weekly reports show that between Feb. 25 and April 1, 75 new cases were identified in the Ely zip code, with most of those appearing in the second half of March.
And while not minimizing the significance of a spike that sent Ely schools into distance learning mode, the overall incidence rate of COVID-19 in Ely remains the lowest among all the North Country zip codes monitored by the Timberjay at 452 per 10,000. Cook is the highest at 750.
All but one of the other North Country zip codes showed slight case increases in March. Tower recorded eight, Cook had seven, Embarrass had five, and Soudan tallied four. Orr had no new cases reported for the month.
However, while the local figures are encouraging, the county as a whole has mirrored the statewide trend of steadily increasing numbers since the beginning of March.
“We continue to see a concerning trend of increasing COVID-19 numbers across the county. Multiple variant types have been identified in St. Louis County and we assume that many of our current cases are linked to these variants,” said Amy Westbrook, St. Louis County Public Health Division Director.
Westbrook encouraged county residents to get vaccinated.
“Currently, 51 percent of St. Louis County residents age 16 years and older are at least partially vaccinated,” she said. “Vaccines save lives and as a community we need to get more shots into people’s arms. We don’t want to see the virus circulating among unvaccinated, vulnerable populations and we certainly don’t want to create opportunities for the virus to mutate further.”
Troubling trend across the state
In a Tuesday press conference, Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm added more support to the ongoing concerns health officials have expressed in recent weeks about the growth in COVID-19 cases.
“We’ve said from the beginning of the pandemic (that) it’s so important to look at trends over time with our data and not focus too much on any one single day’s number. And certainly, the trend for our cases has been going up for 25 days now. Our case rate per 100,000 people has been trending up without any interruption. Week over week, we’ve seen 2.5 percent more cases this week than the week prior, up from a 2.2 percent increase the week before that.”
Troubling, too, Malcolm said, is the rapid escalation of positive tests.
“We’re definitely not out of the woods yet with this pandemic, and to reinforce that point, I’ll just note that our seven-day average test positivity rate is now at six percent. That figure has jumped a whole percentage point in one week.”
With the increase in cases has come a rise in hospitalizations.
“Bed use is up by 40 percent just in the last ten days,” Malcolm said. “There are 497 people currently in the hospital with COVID-19, and of those 114 are in intensive care. It wasn’t too long ago that our hospital levels were closer to 200, with under 50 in intensive care.”
Malcolm addressed a new outreach initiative announced Tuesday by Gov. Tim Walz that will connect workers in critical frontline industries with the resources they need to get vaccinated. Her comments were particularly pertinent for the hospitality industry in the North Country as tourism season nears.
“In the first week of the campaign, the outreach will focus on workers in the food service industry,” Malcolm said. “As you all know, the pandemic has been particularly devastating for restaurants, bars and other food service employees and employers. They have worked hard to find new ways to keep Minnesotans safe and to protect their workforces.”
Malcolm said that the state has partnered with industry leaders, employers, influential restauranteurs, and chefs to educate workers about the vaccines and connect them with community vaccination sites through the state’s online Vaccine Connector. No special allocation of vaccines has been reserved for food service workers, Malcolm said, as they are being encouraged to take advantage of community-based opportunities already available to them.
Malcolm noted that the number of vaccine doses administered to Minnesotans would top three million this week, with nearly 1.2 million people fully vaccinated.
"Thanks to the focus we’ve had on vaccinating for impact and prioritizing the most vulnerable Minnesotans for vaccines, we have reason to hope that that the case growth that we’re seeing now won’t lead to a spike as terrible as the one we had in November and December,” she said. “But we need to keep up our guard to assure that that doesn’t happen. Most Minnesotans are still not vaccinated, and that means there are still millions of people in our communities who are susceptible to illness from this virus. We very much need people to stick with what works, that includes masking, social distancing, staying at home when you’re sick and getting tested. We’re asking people to continue to focus on those protective actions for a few more weeks to get us that time that we need.”