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When, where and whether or not to get tested for COVID-19

Three new cases of a novel coronavirus, COVID-19, have been announced in Minnesota since the weekend. Two additional metro area patients were identified and public health officials in Olmsted County held a press conference Wednesday afternoon to announce a new case in the Rochester area – bringing the statewide total up to five since the virus was first identified in Minnesota late last week.

In discussing the first case of COVID-19 to be found outside the Twin Cities region, Graham Briggs, Olmsted County Public Health Services director, noted his department is fairly confident the latest patient was exposed while traveling outside the United States. So far, all instances in Minnesota have appeared to be isolated, but Briggs added that community transmission is likely on the horizon.

“We’re hearing from our clinical providers in the community that they are seeing increasing numbers of residents showing up asking for testing,” said Briggs. “One thing we need to be working on is not putting a strain on those emergency departments.”

A March 9 news release from the Northfield Hospital and Clinics advised that patients may need to seek testing if they are exhibiting the primary COVID-19 symptoms — fever, cough and shortness of breath — in addition to meeting other potential risk factors such as recent travel or close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 patient.

The release also noted that fever and a rash, or fever and vomiting or diarrhea, would also be reasons to call in and see if testing is recommended.

Leslie Lovett, Minnesota Department of Health emerging infections unit supervisor, said individuals returning from China, Iran, Italy and South Korea — countries with a Level 3 Travel Advisory — should closely monitor their health and are asked to stay home for a two-week period upon re-entry based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“If they’re sick enough to normally seek out a health care provider, then they would be advised to notify their provider in advance that they had recent travel and work out appropriate care and testing,” added Lovett. “If they’re not sick enough to go seek out care, then we just recommend that people stay home when they’re sick.”

Public health officials and providers across southern Minnesota echoed Lovett’s advisory that anyone with a potential case of COVID-19 should call their clinic first, instead of going in person. This way, clients will be able to talk through their situation and make a plan for limiting exposure to others if they are ill.

“Don’t just go to the clinic,” reiterated Cindy Shaughnessy, Le Sueur County Public Health director. “Health care providers can make that assessment and use their judgment on whether or not they think one of their patients needs to be tested.”

According to the Northfield Hospital press release, “MDH helps providers make the decision whether to test a patient for COVID-19, based on specific criteria. MDH encourages providers to first test patients with symptoms for other respiratory illness like influenza.”

How COVID-19 spreads

According to the CDC, individuals with COVID-19 may begin displaying symptoms between two days and two weeks after exposure. Lovett said there’s not enough information at this time to determine whether a person is contagious even when they are not symptomatic, but she noted that with any respiratory illness the likelihood of transmission is highest when symptoms are present.

“That’s when they’re spreading the most viruses because that’s when they’re having the most sneezing, coughing and fluids,” she explained.

On its website, the CDC noted that there have been some reports of the new coronavirus spreading before people show symptoms, but that it’s not thought to be the primary means of transmission.

Currently, COVID-19 is thought to spread mainly from person to person, between those who are within about 6 feet of each other and when an infected person produces respiratory droplets by coughing or sneezing — these can then land in the mouths or noses of bystanders and be inhaled into the lungs.

While all five cases in Minnesota so far have been likely linked to travel, Briggs noted that community spread is likely on the horizon — this would mean that more people would become infected with the virus in one area, without being able to easily identify how or where they might have been exposed to the disease.

As more testing is being done across the state, Shaughnessy added that she’s been told to expect additional cases.

When to get tested

Currently, all local samples are being sent to the MDH Public Health Laboratory, which started testing for the virus March 2. Andrea Ahneman, communications planner for the agency, said that over the last week and a half the number of cases being tested per day has increased as capacity ramps up and testing becomes more common. Lovett added that a number of commercial labs will also likely be coming online soon to test swabs for COVID-19, but that she’s unsure of the exact timeframe.

While the oral and nasal swabs necessary for the test are fairly common and easy for clinics to order through their regular supply chain, there has still been a limitation over the past few weeks to the number of tests that can be performed, according to Timothy Sielaff, Chief Medical Officer at Allina Health.

“There’s not a limitation to testing for those who meet the criteria,” he explained, “but if we started having people who were well coming in who were worried, that might overwhelm the system.”

He also noted that this limitation will likely go away in the near future, as the country adapts to dealing with the novel virus. While he noted that the situation is evolving every day, at this point, he said there would be no reason to try and schedule a test while not exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.

“One of the public health benefits of that is then you’re saving the access for people who are ill and do need testing,” said Sielaff.

Briggs mentioned the same sentiment at Wednesday’s press conference, adding that emergency care providers are also continuing to process accidents and other sudden illnesses. According to Briggs, the infected individual in Olmsted County was sent home to self-isolate due to the mild nature of their symptoms and was told to notify providers if anything changes.

Preventative measures

In order to avoid contracting the virus and necessitating testing, Lovett reiterated the importance of following basic hygiene practices — these include washing hands with soap and water for 20 seconds or more on a regular basis, using hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol if soap and water aren’t available, avoiding any face-touching, cleaning frequently-used surfaces daily, covering coughs and sneezes with an elbow or tissue, and more.

“If you’re sick, stay home,” reiterated Sielaff. “If you’re unwell, but not short of breath and not experiencing the more severe systems, self-isolation is a good option.”

According to Betsy Spethmann, Northfield Hospital and Clinics communications director, self-isolation should last 14 days to account for the maximum amount of time that it may potentially take COVID-19 symptoms to develop. She also noted that people living with someone in isolation should take added precautions, including using a separate bedroom and bathroom if available, making sure that shared spaces have air flow either by an air conditioner or open window and other steps recommended by the CDC.

The patient should wear a face mask around other people and refrain from handling any animals in the home. To date, the CDC notes that there have been no reports of companion animals contracting or spreading the disease, although it’s believed it initially emerged from an animal source in China earlier this winter.

For additional guidelines on prevention, symptoms and treatment, visit the CDC’s website at www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/. The MDH has also set up a COVID-19 hotline, which will be available at 651-201-3920 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays.

If you believe you should be tested for COVID-19, call your health care provider to talk through your situation and make arrangements before going to a health care facility in person.

COVID-19 and its spread has caused fear and uncertainty across the globe. To ensure our community has the latest information on this public health threat, APG Media of Southern Minnesota is providing stories and information on this issue in front of its paywall.

Student artwork from 10 area schools displayed at Paradise Center

Art teachers often display their students’ projects on the walls and in the halls of their schools, but an annual student art show at the Paradise Center for the Arts allows students the rare chance to admire the artwork of students from other schools.

Students from 10 area schools — including those in the Faribault School District, Divine Mercy Catholic School, Minnesota State Academy for the Blind and Cannon River STEM School — have their artwork represented on the second floor of the Paradise Center until April 10.

These Minnesota art projects by Jefferson fifth-graders Claire Anderson, left, and Alex Alvarez Rivera are among hundreds of art pieces currently displayed at the student art gallery in the Paradise Center. (Photo courtesy of Julie Fakler)

The student art gallery kicked off with an open house reception Friday, during which students and their families viewed the displays for the first time and enjoyed juice and cookies. Julie Fakler, operations manager of the Paradise Center, said 250 to 300 guests attended the open house just before spring break started at most of the participating schools.

“I was expecting less because of the spring break, but that didn’t happen,” said Fakler, who also serves as head of the Art Gallery Committee. “Plenty of parents, kids, grandparents — tons of people came.”

Faribault Middle School students have photographs and drawings displayed in the Paradise Center for the Arts student gallery. Clockwise from left are pieces by eighth-grader Allison Norton, eighth-grader Jacee Frank, eighth-grader Augustine Esenabhalu, eighth-grader Rylee Sietsema, seventh-grader Tennyson Roiger and eighth-grader Camryn Breitenfeldt. (Photo courtesy of Julie Fakler)

Tiffany Wells, art teacher at Cannon River STEM, said one of her students brought not only her parents and grandparents but also aunts, uncles and a few cousins to the reception. Other parents confirmed they plan to view the gallery after they return from spring break trips.

“It’s fun to see the different projects that come out of all the different standards,” Wells said of the student art gallery.

At Cannon River STEM, where the entire staff places a strong emphasis on nature, Wells said she often integrates other elements of the curriculum into her art instruction. Young students might practice titling their work or writing a sentence to describe it while middle school students write full paragraphs and prepare slideshows for an art show specific to their school.

At the Paradise Center, artwork by Wells’ students include watercolor and acrylic paintings, weavings and collages. Some of her students used a printmaking technique with ink and Styrofoam plates and kept the results they liked best. Younger students used tempera paint, which washes out of clothes easily. Wells said she teaches ceramics to students as well, but she omits those pieces from the Paradise Center gallery since they’re breakable.

This painting by Carmen David, Cannon River STEM School second-grader, is on display at the Paradise Center for the Arts student art gallery. (Photo courtesy of Julie Fakler)

Wells collected 50 art pieces — the maximum for any school building — to display at the Paradise Center. In fairness to her students, and to represent the wide variety of projects completed at Cannon River STEM, Wells chooses pieces from each class section in each of the kindergarten through eighth-grade levels. A team of six people help her select which artwork to include.

No matter who she selects, Wells said her students show their support for classmates represented at the Paradise Center art gallery.

“They’re all very excited. They can’t wait,” Wells said. “They know about the end of February I start handing out the letters to students who will have art hanging up ... They clap for each other, and we talk about how it’s a great opportunity for them to have their art recognized in the community and be seen.”

The Love’s Travel Stop along Interstate 15 in northeast Las Vegas is the site of an apparent homicide. Mark Doocy of Blooming Prairie was arrested March 4 on a Nevada warrant charging him with murder with use of a deadly weapon for the slaying of Dennis Hopkins at the truck stop. (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

Jason Hommes / By JASON HOMMES jhommes@faribault.com 

Waterville-Elysian-Morristown junior Ellie Ready averaged 8.0 points a game during the regular season, but scored at least 15 in each of the team’s final three wins in the Section 2A tournament. (Daily News File Photo)

Bill providing $50M in loans to Minn. farmers moves quickly at the Capitol

A bill in the Minnesota’s legislature to provide $50 million in new loans to farmers in crisis is needed now more than ever, according to the Rice County Farmers Union.

RCFU President Steven Read said that the program provided a crucial safety net when stormy weather hit throughout the winter months. That need hasn’t abated as farmers work to recover from a difficult stretch.

“With the farm crisis we’re experiencing, the money that the legislature allocated last year has already been used up,” he said. “They need to refill the coffers to keep that program to keep those opportunities available to the farmers who need them.”

Farmers have had a rough few years, with commodity prices low, in large part due to uncertainty in trade markets. A new trade deal with Canada and Mexico could help to stabilize that, but the future of the Chinese market is less certain.

Inconsistent weather conditions have also taken a major toll locally. Back-to-back late and wet planting seasons in 2018 and 2019 hit area farmers particularly hard, damaging yields throughout the region.

The bill has quickly advanced at the Capitol after a popular loan program ran out of cash in late February. Founded in 1986 during the heart of the Farm Crisis, the Rural Finance Authority Loan Program is designed to help farmers facing crisis or transition. Funds can be used by farmers for capital improvements and to overcome lean times.

Rice County farmer Jim Purfeerst used funding from the RFA for the former purpose. Purfeerst said that thanks to the new crop sprayer he was able to purchase with loan money from the RFA, he’s been able to spray his fields in a more efficient and environmentally friendly manner.

The RFA generally partners with local lenders to provide the assistance, which is specifically targeted for small- and medium-sized farmers along with beginning farmers. Only farmers with less than $850,000 in equity are eligible.

The RFA’s loan program has proven popular and successful, providing nearly $300 million to Minnesota farmers over its duration, about a third of which are outstanding. Over that time, it’s only incurred $555,707 in loan losses.

The bill was introduced Feb. 11 in the House by Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, and in the Senate by Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, with local Rep. Todd Lippert, DFL-Northfield, an original co-sponsor. Poppe and Westrom serve as Agriculture Committee chair in their respective branches of the legislature.

The House passed the bill by an overwhelming bipartisan margin on March 5, with only Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, and Rep. Cal Bahr, R-East Bethel, in opposition. Drazkowski and Bahr are members of the four-member “New Republican” caucus in the House, which has expressed displeasure with the leadership of Republican House leader Kurt Daudt.

The bill now advances to the Senate, where local Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, is a co-sponsor. With planting season on the horizon, groups like the Minnesota Farmers Union are urging swift passage.

“This is an issue that attracts broad, bipartisan support, because everyone knows it’s important,” said Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault.

It’s possible that 2020 could hold some good news for area farmers. Weather permitting, yields could be set to rebound significantly in 2020. According to projections from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, carry over stocks of corn could reach their highest levels since 1988.

However, a U.S. Department of Agriculture report in February suggested very little increased net return over the next decade on corn or soybeans. With the stock market reeling over coronavirus fears, the short-term market picture isn’t pretty either.