REGIONAL- Measures of the Delta-driven spike of the COVID-19 pandemic in St. Louis County have hit their highest levels of the year, reaching marks similar to those seen in the runup to last …
REGIONAL- Measures of the Delta-driven spike of the COVID-19 pandemic in St. Louis County have hit their highest levels of the year, reaching marks similar to those seen in the runup to last fall’s massive November/December spike.
The numbers are beyond troubling to County Public Health Division Director Amy Westbrook, who on Tuesday issued a written update describing the challenges the county is facing.
“Area hospitals have been at capacity for weeks and have had to divert patients,” Westbrook said. “Schools and long-term care facilities are dealing with outbreaks and having to quarantine. Even with approximately 120,000 of our 200,000 residents now vaccinated, more people are getting sick now than a year ago at this time.”
Westbrook said that in addition to having 80,000 people unvaccinated, fewer people are following recommendations for masking in indoor settings and avoiding large gatherings.
The start of school has also contributed to the rise in cases. Aubrie Hoover, a county health specialist who works directly with schools on COVID mitigation strategies, confirmed for the Timberjay on Tuesday that the biweekly case rate for schools in northern St. Louis County to be officially posted on Thursday is 65, and will go up again the following week, as it lags behind other measures due to data checking protocols. That’s within two points of the measure logged for the first two weeks of November 2020, one which would have recommended a shift to full distance learning.
“We are just a few weeks into the 2021-22 school year, with in-person instruction, and with an average of 20-30 new cases in schools being reported every day, we already are seeing two important trends,” Westbrook said. “In school settings where vaccination rates are highest, the transmission rates are lower. And even in school settings where vaccination rates are low, transmission rates are lower if there are layered strategies such as masking, social distancing, and good ventilation.”
Many school districts in the region have responded to the surging numbers by re-evaluating policies regarding universal masking. Ely imposed a mask mandate immediately prior to the start of the school year and has reported only two COVID cases to date. School boards for Hibbing and Rock Ridge districts have implemented universal masking requirements in the past week in response to situations in their districts.
Others are leaving in place optional masking policies. Chisholm’s school board deadlocked on a universal masking policy on Monday, leaving their optional policy in place for now. ISD 2142 school board members did not consider any change to the district’s optional masking policy on Tuesday, nor did they discuss the current district situation, although all schools in the district have reported COVID cases.
Countywide, 41 percent of eligible students aged 12 and over have been fully vaccinated, according to Katie Albert, who coordinates vaccinations for the county.
Hoover said that she “keeps an active eye” on school cases, and if she identifies a particular group where COVID cases are spreading, such as a classroom or a sports team, she recommends a two-week period of masking among all members of the group.
With the expiration of the state of emergency declared last year by Gov. Tim Walz, the state Departments of Health and Education lost their ability to impose any mandated COVID mitigation strategies, but Westbrook emphasized that the recommendations should not be taken casually.
“They aren’t just suggestions, they’re strongly encouraged, strongly recommended,” she said in a Tuesday interview with the Timberjay.
State Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said on Friday that a hoped-for plateau in the COVID surge statewide has not materialized, as she reported almost 3,000 new cases for the previous day. She noted that every county in the state is now in the CDC’s category of “high transmission.”
“We continue to have grave concerns about the impact of this latest wave on our hospitals, long-term care facilities and health systems,” Malcolm said. “This wave of cases is not going away any time soon. We’re all beyond tired of this pandemic. We’re tired of the fear, the frustration, and the uncertainty. The best way to make things better is to do our part, individually and as communities, to slow transmission.”
All the health officials cited above were in agreement that the number one thing people should do to help is get vaccinated.
Weekly doses administered rose briefly in August as people became more concerned about the highly infectious Delta variant, and also as eligible students in public schools and colleges and universities prepared to return to classes. But vaccination rates tapered off during the first three weeks of September, averaging about 50,000 per week statewide and including both first and second doses.
“We continue to plead with people to get vaccinated,” Westbrook said. “Vaccines are safe and remain our best defense against COVID-19.”
Albert said that 68.4 percent of those 12 and older in the county have received at least one dose of vaccine.
“When we started seeing the Delta virus, there was definitely an uptick,” she said. “At this point that’s not the case anymore. It’s just really slowly creeping along.”
In addition to the standard vaccination protocols, federal approval came last week for booster shots for those who received the two-dose Pfizer vaccination, albeit with some confusion as the authorization worked its way through the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control.
Albert said that she didn’t see any issues with delivering booster shots in the county, and provided additional clarification about who should get a booster.
People 65 years of age and older and residents of long-term care facilities who received their second shot of the Pfizer vaccine at least six months ago should get a booster, as should anyone 50-64 with an underlying medical condition, Albert said.
However, Pfizer booster shots will have limited impact in long-term care facilities, where 90 percent of residents received the Moderna vaccine, due to its greater ease of administration by pharmacies contracted to deliver vaccinations in those settings, according to state health officials.
Two other groups may also get Pfizer booster shots, Albert said, those 18-49 with underlying medical conditions and those 18-64 whose occupations or institutional settings put them at higher risk of contracting COVID.
“Have a conversation with your primary care provider,” Albert said. “Talk to your provider if you’re questioning it and see what their thoughts are.”
Some types of COVID testing kits, particularly rapid tests and at-home test kits, are in short supply in the northern part of the county, but Westbrook said that the state is still offering free home test kits online through the MDH website. She also noted that the turnaround time for results once the kit is received at the lab is about eight hours.
New weekly cases reported by the state last Thursday held discouraging news for Orr, which had an area high of 18 new cases, the only zip code monitored by the Timberjay with a double-digit increase. Five new cases were reported in Tower, two in Soudan, nine in Cook, eight in Ely, and five in Embarrass.
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