Rice and Steele counties, like the state of Minnesota, have again seen a steep rise in COVID-19 cases.
In Minnesota, the total confirmed COVID-19 cases hit 9,365 Thursday, up 786 from Wednesday, the largest single-day jump in cases. It continues a string of days of accelerating case counts as testing for the virus intensifies. Steele County had 10 additional cases from Wednesday to Thursday, Rice had 19. Since Thursday, Rice County has had 36 more confirmed cases.
Steele County now has a total of 41 positive cases. The age range of cases is teens to those in their 70s. Rice’s numbers are higher, with 53 cases in all. The youngest is 12, according to Rice County Public Health Director Deb Purfeerst. The oldest is 89.
A Steele County business is experiencing a cluster of employees who have tested positive for COVID-19, according to a release from Steele County Public Health Director Amy Caron. Public Health is working in partnership with Minnesota Department of Health, health care partners and the business to address the situation and to try to contain further spread.
Purfeerst attributes much of the jump to increased testing and guidelines that allow for those with less severe symptoms to be tested. Area businesses who are screening employees each time they arrive for work is also contributing to the higher number of confirmed cases, she said.
Those affected are asked to isolate themselves for two weeks and until symptoms subside for 10 days, with no fever for three days. While most people are able to recover at home, those who are older or have underlying health conditions may require further medical assistance in a hospital.
While Purfeerst understands the urge to gather, she underscores the importance of taking precautions when going to the store or getting together with friends.
“We are social creatures,” she said. “We like to congregate. But we’re going to have to change our practices if we’re going to slow the spread.”
Both counties are seeing more cases in younger people, a change Purfeerst believes is a result of workplace screening. And while the virus tends to hit older people and those with pre-existing conditions harder, there’s no way to predict how individuals will react to the coronavirus.
“People can be asymptomatic and potentially spread the illness and not even know,” she said, making the case for taking precautions and using good judgment.
“We want people to exercise, to be out and about — of course, we have beautiful weather. You can get together and stay 6 feet apart.”
The virus that causes COVID-19 is spread primarily by respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It can also spread when people touch surfaces that have been contaminated by an infected person and then touch their eyes, nose or mouth.
There is much we do not know about this virus. However, there are things we can do to protect ourselves, our family members, our neighbors and our vulnerable populations. Do this by taking the following actions:
• Wear a cloth face mask when you are out in public; especially when out getting groceries, supplies or medications. The mask will not protect you but will protect others in case you are carrying the virus unknowingly.
• If you are currently carpooling to your work or other places, please consider other options. If you do not have any other options wear a cloth face mask for some protection.
• Practice social or physical distancing from others by keeping a distance of 6 feet between you and others out in public.
• If you have an underlying health condition or are an older adult, take precautions now. Consider limiting any visitors to your home. Consider asking others to assist you in getting the things you need, such as groceries or medications so that you do not have to go out where there are groups of people.
• Do not gather in groups. Find new ways to conduct your daily business. Make use of technology and use phones, FaceTime, Skype and other ways to communicate
• Stay home if you have cold or flu-like symptoms and avoid close contact with people who are sick. Try to separate other people in your household from any members that are sick.
• Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or into your sleeve, and then throw the tissue in the trash.
• Wash your hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom or before eating. If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
• Avoid touching your face – especially your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
• Clean and disinfect your home to remove germs: practice routine cleaning of frequently touched surfaces
• If you have symptoms of a respiratory disease (these include fever, coughing, muscle aches, sore throat, and headache), you should stay home for at least 10 days, and for three days with no fever and improvement of respiratory symptoms—whichever is longer. (Your fever should be gone for 3 days without using fever-reducing medicine.)
• Please seek healthcare for any other conditions you may have.
Hospitals and clinics in both counties are open and ready to help.
With the coronavirus pandemic likely to extend well into the summer and fall, the state legislature is examining ways to help local election authorities deal with unprecedented challenges.
DFLers, who control the State House, have pushed hard for a dramatic expansion of vote by mail as one way to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. Five states currently conduct their elections entirely by mail: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington.
Minnesota has often led the nation in voter turnout. The state registered 75% in 2016, which dropped to 64% in 2018 without the presidency on the ballot. Nationally, just 60% of eligible voters cast a ballot in 2016, and that slumped to 49% in 2018.
Since 2013, Minnesotans have been able to request an absentee ballot in person or by mail under reforms spearheaded by then-Gov. Mark Dayton. State Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter, wants to take that a step further. Under Brand’s bill, Secretary of State Steve Simon would be asked to direct local election authorities to conduct the August primary and November General Election primarily through vote by mail.
The bill’s fiscal note suggests it could save some money if enacted, in comparison to the present system. It was approved by the State Government Finance Division on a near party line vote, with only Rep. Michael Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Park, breaking ranks.
With Republicans in control of the State Senate, Vote by Mail proposals are likely to face long odds in 2020. Senate Government Finance, Policy and Elections Committee Chair Mary Kiffmeyer, a former Secretary of State, has made her opposition to the bill clear.
Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, said that he’s opposed to the bill because he believes Minnesotans should be given a choice between casting an absentee ballot or voting in person. He also warned that vote by mail could bring with it an increased risk of fraud.
However, Simon testified to the House Government Finance Division that he’s not aware of any instances of fraud through vote by mail. Simon noted that each voter is required to submit personal identifying information along with their ballot.
Currently, Minnesota cities or townships with fewer than 400 residents are allowed to conduct elections entirely through vote by mail if they choose. Municipalities in 78 of Minnesota’s 87 counties have opted to do so.
Although Vote by Mail may be stalled, another Brand-backed elections bill breezed to passage. The House approved it on Monday by a 119-14 vote, while the Senate signed off on it 66-1 Thursday, with only Sen. Jeff Howe, R-Rockville, in opposition.
Among other things, the bill could help local election authorities tap into funding available under the federal Help America Vote Act. However, in order to secure funding the state will need to provide 20% in matching funds, or $1.5 million, by the end of 2021. That funding could be used for a variety of measures, including Personal Protective Equipment for election workers, cleaning supplies and voter outreach. Local election authorities are also allowed to designate new polling places until July, to reduce the risk of overcrowding.
Although election day may still be a long ways off, Brand said it’s important for the state to begin preparing now, given the unusual circumstances. He pointed to recent Wisconsin primary as an example of what could happen if Minnesota is not well prepared. Last month, Minnesota’s eastern neighbor proceeded with regularly scheduled state and national primary elections after the Wisconsin Supreme Court nullified Gov. Tony Evers’s order to delay and alter the primary’s format.
Millions of Wisconsin voters still made their voices heard, while struggling to follow basic social distancing guidelines. With some election judges refusing to participate, Evers was required to utilize the state’s National Guard.
Since then, dozens of poll workers have reportedly contracted the virus. A disproportionate number are senior citizens particularly vulnerable to the virus. Given that reality, Brand said the bipartisan bill is “the bare minimum” the state can do to support its election workers.
“The last thing I want people to do is to risk their lives to vote,” he said. “This is America. We have veterans who have fought in foreign wars to protect our lives to vote, who have put their lives on the line. I don’t want our community members to also have to make the same sacrifice just to vote.”
To accommodate a likely increase in absentee ballot requests, local election authorities will be allowed to begin counting votes a week before Election Day. Elections officials will even be allowed to count early and absentee votes after Election Day if necessary.
The bill will also permit candidates to file for office electronically, rather than in person. Filing deadlines for presidential candidates have also been pushed back, giving the parties more time to sort out their final tickets.
Waseca County Auditor/Treasurer Tammy Spooner said that additional funding would be most welcome. She said that the county hasn’t developed firm plans yet, but is exploring ways to make voting safer and more accessible while protecting election workers.
However, significant changes could require funding, something that Spooner says could prove a major challenge. In addition to a lack of funding, existing funding pots aren’t designed to be used for needs such as PPE and ample cleaning supplies, she said.
Photos of milk being dumped into fields and cries to support dairy farmers have flooded social media and TV newscasts since the United States reported its first cases of COVID-19. Local dairy farmers say that the situation is exactly as it's being portrayed.
In January, Rick Balzer, of Balzer Dairy Farm, just outside of Owatonna, was selling his milk at $19 per hundred weight – the unit of measurement for weight used in certain commodities, including milk. By March, he was selling his product at $16/hundred weight. By June the price will be as little as $11, he said.
“It’s going to be devastating,” Blazer said. “We’ve been going through this for the last four years with low milk prices, and one of these days I will run out of cash and have to sell. I am using my retirement to keep us going.”
Though Blazer admits that the dropping dairy prices has been an issue for a number of years, the pandemic has made times especially difficult. According to the information he received from his creamery, the rapid closure of the restaurant service industry was the first nail in the COVID-19 coffin for dairy farmers.
“Those creameries that sell into that business, those are the ones you’re seeing dumping milk,” Balzer said. “Our creamery we sell to makes all our product into cheese, and that product is still moving and our co-op is doing well, but the price is still down.”
Tom Marzinske, a dairy farmer with 100 cows just outside of Janesville, also felt the distressing impact of the state of the dairy industry, taking a 30% decrease in dairy sales. He said he has's heard that school closures is one of the major reasons the milk market has fallen off a cliff.
“The bottling plants that are tooled to fill those little cartons for schools, they can’t just switch over to gallon jugs,” Marzinske said, adding that once milk is produced it is processed and put on the shelf for sale in a matter of days. “With those places shut down there is no market and the only thing to do is to dump.”
The schools' shut down played a role in the decline in milk prices and the “grab-and-go” dairy products such as yogurt cups, but statistics Blazer's seen show that overall dairy consumption is on the rise.
“I know that cheese us is up because people are eating a lot of pizzas yet,” Balzer said with a chuckle. “But fluid milk use is up, too, because people are getting milk to take home and feed their children. Feeding your kids cereal and milk in the morning is a good way to keep them busy for a little while.”
Despite the reportedly consumption of dairy in households being up, Balzer and Marzinske say that the stress COVID-19 has brought to their farms can be overwhelming.
“We can’t shut down the cows,” Marzinske said. “We are still busy keeping our cows as healthy and as happy as we can, and we can’t stop doing what we normally do to take care of them. But we’re really taking a hit.”
Balzer's 120 cows are still his priority, but the reality of his situation is hard to escape.
“My wife pays the bills and it can be stressful for her when she’s trying to write checks and we don’t have the money because we have cut our milk payment down by a third,” Blazer said. “I can only hope this is temporary. I try to always look at things optimistically, but I didn’t build my robot barn so that it goes out of business.”
As far as what the public can do to support their local dairy farms, both farmers said that the answer is simple: eat more dairy.
“I’m hoping that [the state] can see that it will be fine to open things up,” Marzinske said. “We’ve learned enough about who is at risk so that they can be careful, so my hope is that everything will open again so we can get our market out there.”