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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

North Country schools caught in COVID surge

Local doctor confirms area surge, urges vaccinations and masking

David Colburn
Posted 9/22/21

REGIONAL- After state health officials warned last week of a sharp increase in the number of school-related COVID-19 cases, the surge has hit home in the North Country, with new cases reported at …

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North Country schools caught in COVID surge

Local doctor confirms area surge, urges vaccinations and masking


REGIONAL- After state health officials warned last week of a sharp increase in the number of school-related COVID-19 cases, the surge has hit home in the North Country, with new cases reported at Ely, North Woods, Tower-Soudan, and Northeast Range schools.
Ely reported its second COVID case of the year in a post to the district’s Facebook page on Sunday. Superintendent Eric Erie called the case identified in Washington Elementary the only currently “active positive test count” in the district. Masks are currently mandated indoors for all students, staff, and visitors at ISD 696.
Word of a larger outbreak at North Woods School spread on social media on Tuesday as parents and individuals shared communications they received from the district about positive COVID tests.
One individual posted a text message sent Monday through the school’s messaging system.
“We had six positive cases reported today in the high school setting. Masks are recommended. Students can continue to attend school. Please watch for symptoms. Let me know if you have questions.” The text was signed “Dr. E,” the abbreviation used by ISD 2142 Superintendent Reggie Engebritson.
Another post was of a letter sent home in a child’s backpack informing a parent of a North Woods elementary student that “a student or staff person in your child’s classroom has been diagnosed with COVID-19.” Letters such as this are part of the standard notification procedure ISD 2142 uses, along with its text messaging system, to notify parents and others of positive COVID-19 tests associated with particular grade levels. Since such reporting became necessary last school year, cases are routinely not identified as being either a student or staff member.
In total, eight cases at North Woods were reported through social media contacts associated with the official school notices as of Tuesday afternoon.
Contacted Tuesday via email, the Timberjay asked Engebritson to confirm the reports and provide additional information for Tower-Soudan and Northeast Range schools. Engebritson declined to provide specific case numbers but confirmed all three schools have had positive COVID tests.
“At North Woods we have 1.89 percent of positive cases; in Northeast Range we have .81 percent and in Tower-Soudan we have 4 percent. T-S is a much smaller population,” Engebritson said, noting that the percentages are based on student enrollment at each school.
ISD 2142 recommends masks but does not require them, and Engebritson indicated that policy will remain in effect for now. ISD 2142 does not send students home who were in close contact to someone with a positive COVID test unless they start exhibiting COVID symptoms, but parents have the choice to keep their child at home for 10 days to monitor for developing symptoms, Engebritson said.
The surge is also being felt in the neighboring Chisholm school district, where Vaughan-Steffensrud Elementary School, which serves preschool through third grade, was shut down on Sept. 16 for a 14-day reset due to COVID-19 cases there.
State health officials warned that school-related cases had skyrocketed last week during a Sept. 15 press conference. State Health Commissioner Jan Malcom reported that in the week prior, about 150 new cases per day were being reported.
“It has really shot up this week,” Malcolm said. “We had more than 600 cases reported on Monday, and yet another 500 on Tuesday.”
State epidemiologist Ruth Lynfield said she expects this troubling trend to continue.
“This is on the way up,” she said. “We do expect it’s going to continue to rise over the next few weeks.”
New cases in children 10 and under are also an increasing percentage of the state’s overall new cases, Malcolm warned.
“The age distribution continues to trend younger, with over 10 percent of cases over the past two months in children under age 10,” she said. “Almost 6,500 children under 10 have tested positive since mid-July, 2,500 in the last two weeks alone.”
Relief in the form of vaccinations for students younger than 12 years old could be on the way within weeks after Pfizer announced on Monday that early trial results show its vaccine is safe and effective in children ages five to 11, at a dosage one-third of that for adults. However, the company still must complete its analysis and submit the full trial results to the Food and Drug Administration for review and possible emergency use authorization. Full approval of the use of the vaccine in this age group could still be several months away.
Local situation
In a video posted on the Cook Hospital Facebook page on Tuesday, Dr. Nick Vidor emphasized the need for people to get vaccinated to combat increasing case numbers in the area.
“Locally, we’re seeing a surge of the Delta variant in individuals, primarily among the unvaccinated, although we are seeing cases of vaccinated people getting COVID,” Vidor said. “Getting vaccinated helps us cut down on numbers locally. If you get the shots, it cuts down your risk of death and needing to be hospitalized by 99 percent.”
Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are available in Cook, Vidor said, and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is also available in the region.
“Right now, one in 500 Americans have died of COVID,” he said. “That’s a pretty stark, concerning number to me. Locally, the best things you can do are to mask when you are in public and also get vaccinated.”
Weekly state reports of new cases in the Tower and Cook zip codes monitored by the Timberjay clearly illustrate Vidor’s concern about a recent surge, while other areas show smaller increases. Towns are listed by total number of cases reported since Aug. 5, and the increase in cases in the past two weeks:
Tower, 47 total, 28 in the past two weeks.
Ely, 33 total, seven in the past two weeks.
Cook, 28 total, 20 in the past two weeks.
Orr, 10 total, six in the past two weeks.
Embarrass, 9 total, three in the past two weeks.
Soudan, 2 total, one in the past two weeks.
The state counts, issued Thursday, Sept. 16, do not include the most recent cases in schools as reported above.
Also not included are eight new COVID cases reported by Bois Forte Health Services from Sept. 15 through Tuesday.
The notable increases are beginning to affect some area events and services.
The Bois Forte Tribal Government offices at Nett Lake were closed to the public on Monday. Other tribal buildings remained open but may have their own guidelines for visitors, according to a notice posted on the Band’s website.
KBFT 89.9 FM, the Bois Forte Tribal Community Radio, announced that a Wild Rice Native Food Fest scheduled for Sept. 29 has been postponed indefinitely, as have writing workshops scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 22 and Tuesday, Sept. 28.
The Cook Public Library announced Tuesday that the library is again closed to the public due to the COVID outbreak. Lobby pickup is still available Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Hospital visitation
Local and regional hospitals are watching the COVID numbers and making adjustments appropriate to their facilities for patient visitations.
At Cook Hospital, visitation guidelines are tied to the Centers for Disease Control community transmission rate tracker, according to chief operating officer Julie Lesemann. Since the current CDC transmission designation for St. Louis County is “high,” one visitor per patient per day would be allowed, but there are exceptions allowed.
“No matter what the transmission rate is, the physician still has the discretion to change this based on the status of the patient, for example, a critical care patient or a patient who is at the end of his/her life,” Lesemann said. “All pediatric patients are allowed both parents/guardians. The CDC Data Tracker is checked daily. As a reminder, all patients and visitors must wear a face mask while in our facility.”
Jodi Martin, communications team leader at Ely-Bloomenson Community Hospital, said, “Our team has monitored our local COVID numbers closely throughout the pandemic and continues to make changes to our visitation policies as needed.”
Meanwhile, Essentia Health has reinstated visitor restrictions in all of its hospitals due to increased transmission of COVID-19. In most cases, two adult visitors are allowed per patient per day. There are exceptions for pediatric, OB, and end-of-life patients, and visits to emergency departments, pediatric inpatient units, and neonatal intensive care units are allowed 24 hours a day. The complete visitor policy is available at


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