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Ethan Walter, seen here third from the left (no hat) standing in the dugout during an amateur baseball game against Island last Wednesday at Dartts Park, hit a home run against Rochester on Monday night to register for his first hit of the season in a game the Aces won, 9-8. (Jon Weisbrod/People’s Press)

Hepatitis A cases continue to rise across the state

Despite the focal point of public health remaining the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, a yearlong outbreak of another debilitating disease is remaining persistent — albeit quiet — among society.

The Minnesota Department of Health declared a statewide outbreak of Hepatitis A in May 2019, and as of Friday the cases have risen to 117 in 29 counties, with 82 hospitalizations and one death.

Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver, and when the liver is inflamed or damaged its function is affected. In the United States, the most common hepatitis viruses are hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. Unlike hepatitis B and C, hepatitis A is short-term, does not cause chronic liver disease and therefore is rarely fatal, but according to the World Health Organization it can cause debilitating symptoms and fulminant hepatitis — or acute liver failure — which is often fatal.

While the number of confirmed hepatitis A cases over a 14-month span may seem minute compared to the rapidly growing COVID-19 cases since only March, public health officials say that the outbreak is cause for alarm considering the infection can be easily avoided.

“Hepatitis A is not a new thing, it’s been around for quite a while,” said Marie McCarthy, a nurse with Rice County Public Health. “It should be eliminated because there is a vaccine.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the first hepatitis A vaccine was licensed in 1995. Since then, millions of doses of the vaccine have been given worldwide, allowing the infectious disease to become less of a concern in developed countries.

“Because there is a vaccine and those of us living in developed countries like the United States don’t normally consume contaminated food or beverages, it’s not something that people generally think about,” said McCarthy, who explained that the virus is found in the stool and blood of people who are infected and is spread when someone ingests the virus through person-to-person contact and eating contaminated food or drink. “In undeveloped countries, the way they prepare or handle their food is quite different and less regulated than in a developed country.”

According to MDH, people who are at high risk in the current outbreak include those who use injection/non-injection drugs, people experiencing homelessness or unstable housing, people who are currently or were recently incarcerated, and men who have sex with men. While the person-to-person contact transmission is often because of the exchange of bodily fluids, McCarthy said that the other transmissions can be boiled down to the simple lack of appropriate hand washing.

“Nurses have been saying it for years: cover your cough and wash your hands,” McCarthy said.

In the region, the cases of hepatitis A have been minimal, with one confirmed case in Dodge County and two confirmed in Goodhue County. Regardless of the absence of local cases, public health officials in both Rice and Steele counties are encouraging the public to get vaccinated.

“It’s especially important for the youth since we have the vaccine that prevents this disease,” McCarthy said. “We need to complete that circle to allow people to get the vaccine that prevent these outbreaks of things we know we can prevent – just like pertussis, measles, mumps, and rubella.”

McCarthy said that because of the outbreak status that the state has two programs available for public health departments to provide the hepatitis A vaccine to both children and adults. Rice County Public Health currently has both programs, and according to Steele County Public Health Director Amy Caron adult vaccines are available in Steele County.

“With hepatitis A being in an outbreak status, we can vaccinate with an appointment pretty much anybody,” McCarthy said, adding that the public health programs are designed to help the uninsured or underinsured get the necessary immunizations and health care. “We are encouraging people to make appointments to get vaccinated, especially with school coming. One way or another, school will start again, so it’s better to make your appointments now so that we don’t have a line out the door when the state announces that school will start in two weeks.”

McCarthy also said that even though health officials are encouraging people to stay home as much as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals and families should still be taking care of their health through regular appointments.

“Even with COVID-19, the doctor’s office is safe,” McCarthy said. “Keep up with your vaccines.”

As multi-family housing market rises, local communities look to boost single-family

In Faribault, a lack of affordable housing has limited an otherwise robust decade of growth, but events in recent months have provided indication that the tide may be beginning to turn.

After years of effort, the city’s initiative to lure multi-family housing developers to town has enabled the city to secure numerous projects. Once all projects currently in the works are complete, more than 300 units will be added to Faribault’s housing stock.

Just three years ago, the city’s rental vacancy rate sat at less than 1%. Now, projects soon to be completed include the 44-unit Hillside Apartments, 111-unit Straight River Apartments, 76-unit Lofts at Evergreen Knoll, and 68-unit Titan Development project.

Ironically, the rapid expansion of Faribault’s housing market is coming just as the economy takes a COVID-induced nosedive. While the housing market generally remains strong, it’s unclear exactly what affects COVID will have.

As the number of new projects has piled up, the city Housing and Redevelopment Authority hasn’t taken a comprehensive look at what impact each project might have on the broader housing market and the need for/viability of future projects. That changed on Monday night. At its meeting, the HRA authorized just over half of its $20,000 budgeted for consulting services to commission comprehensive rental housing study from Golden Valley-based Maxwell and Associates.

Boosting the city’s multifamily housing stock is one way to address the city’s lack of housing, but housing shortages exist at nearly every price point, according to Community and Economic Development Director Deanna Kuennen. Before COVID-19 hit Faribault, the city was planning on conducting an aggressive recruitment effort to bring single family home builders to the area, as was successfully done with multifamily unit builders.

That’s not to say logistical challenges don’t exist when it comes to building more single family homes in the area. Kuennen said that one major challenge is that many single family lots are held by individual property owners hesitant to sell for a competitive price. Part of the solution to that issue could be the cooperation of local businesses. Several local businesses, including Faribault Foods, have been in conversation with the city about providing land for housing developments.

Another issue is the city’s lower property values, compared to the south metro. While the cost of building a house is much the same in Faribault as in the metro, higher property values ensure a greater profit margin.

“Developers have consistently told us that it’s all very market driven,” she said. “There’s a known market in the south metro that they know they can get.”

Dave Campbell of Weichert Realtors said that in many cases, the advantage of building in the south metro can be as much as $50,000 to $60,000 savings. However, if the numbers can be made to work in Faribault, buyers can enjoy a less expensive home with lower taxes.

With the housing market so tight, many families are forced to look for housing elsewhere. As a result, Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Nort Johnson said that businesses sometimes lose good employees who want to work where they can afford to live.

The issue isn’t unique to Faribault. RE/MAX Agent Matt Gillard said that in Owatonna, the market is also incredibly tight. At any one time, the number of single family houses on the market is only around 35 — a fraction of what is considered a healthy number.

Owatonna Area Chamber President of Commerce and Tourism President Brad Meier agrees. As in Faribault, he said that the growth in multi-family housing supply has grown farm more than single family housing supply.

“The shortage of single family housing has made it hard for folks to find what they need,” he said. “Growth within the market is needed.”

Nonetheless, Gillard said that new home construction is very expensive and only a handful of builders are willing to take a risk of a so-called “spec” or speculative home. In part, that may be because Owatonna’s housing market tends to be more affordable. Gillard said that while he believes the government should mostly stay out of the market, recruiting more developers willing to build spec homes would help supply come more in line with demand. He also pointed to regulation as a potential barrier to housing development.

Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, has worked extensively on increasing access to single family housing, and he said that he believes Minnesota’s regulatory code is among the state’s greatest barriers to housing development.

Draheim, who owns a Weichert Realtors branch in Mankato along with other businesses, was tapped to chair the Senate Select Committee on Home Ownership last spring. Out of that committee came a series of bipartisan bills designed to make homeownership more affordable.

Draheim has said that reducing regulation is important. He says that Minnesota’s is among the strictest in the nation, and that by loosening it the state can open up the door for more people to benefit from home ownership.

In addition to potentially reducing the rate of COVID spread, efforts to meet the growing demand for affordable single family homes have numerous other benefits, helping families to build sustainable wealth and stable communities.

“We know that ownership opportunities help start up families, generate wealth, by owning an appreciating asset,” Johnson said. “We think more ownership opportunities will help lift Faribault workers into a new category of middle class workers.”

Faribault City Councilor Jonathan Wood, who owns a construction business, said that it’s important that the city help to attract builders focused on all segments of the market. He said that a lack of supply in one part of the market trickles down to other parts of the market.

Wood has built hundreds of homes, with a business model mostly focused on appealing to upscale customers by using high quality materials. He said that many of his customers are retirement age or near-retirement age.

“ I can go out and go to Menards and buy the cheapest window, but that doesn't satisfy a good chunk of the market,” he said. “They expect a really nice product.”

Wood said that, due to Faribault’s lower property values, it’s a challenge for builders like him to make the numbers work. Even though his homes have been popular in area cities, like Dundas, he hasn’t been able to build much in Faribault.

Wood said that by working with local lending institutions, it’s possible that an agreement could be reached to incentivize higher end home building. That, he said, could open up the market for more affordable houses and rentals as well.

“If we can cater to people who want to buy a nice house, you’ll see them move up,” he said. “Now, suddenly there’s 30 more houses with vinyl siding, and then 30 more rentals available.”

The offices of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, one of the agencies involved in the breach. (Photo by Tony Webster/Minnesota Reformer)

Suspect arrested in Sunday's fatal stabbing

The man identified as a person of interest in the stabbing death of an Owatonna man is in police custody.

Hassan Nur Hassan, 28, was arrested without incident by Minneapolis police and booked into the Hennepin County Jail at 12:35 a.m. Tuesday morning.

Hassan was transferred to the Steele County Detention Center where he awaits charges in the July 12 death of Mohamed Aweis Mohamed, 32, according to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. The Steele County jail roster lists a pending charge of second-degree murder, according to Jail Administrator Anthony Buttera.

Shortly after 5 p.m. Sunday, the Owatonna Police Department responded to a call of a reported stabbing in Dartts Park. When officers arrived, they reportedly found Mohamed unconscious and laying on the ground on the park’s southeast parking lot with what appeared to be stab wounds. Mohamed was declared dead at the scene as a result to a stab wound in the chest.

The BCA, which is helping in the investigation, reportedly recovered two knives at the scene. Both the Owatonna police and the BCA identified Hassan as a person of interest in the incident Monday, asking the public for help in locating him.

While Hassan has a long criminal history, he’s not been convicted of anything more serious than giving an officer a false name and driving with a suspended license.

Formal charges are expected to be filed on Wednesday, according to the Steele County Attorney’s Office.

Debate over the gov’s emergency powers shows how differently the parties see the pandemic

There was only one official reason why the Minnesota Legislature returned to special session Monday: to pass judgment on Gov. Walz’s fourth 30-day extension of the declaration of peacetime emergency to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. And that’s all the Minnesota Legislature did.

While not giving up on reaching an agreement on a handful of other issues, House and Senate leaders said they weren’t quite there on a deal yet. Both House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka suggested the two sides keep working and return to St. Paul on July 20.

So the only official action was a Senate debate on a resolution to remove Walz’s emergency declaration. In the end, the vote was 35-31, with just one DFLer, Sen. Kent Eken of Twin Valley, voting with Republicans to pass the resolution. When and if the DFL-controlled House takes up the proposal to overturn the emergency declaration, it will vote it down, however, giving Walz a victory by a score of 1-1.

That’s what happened on June 13, the last time the Legislature had to consider the issue. And it is likely what will happen come August 13, should Walz again extend the emergency again.

Yet even if Monday’s result was essentially predetermined by the politics of the Legislature — with the Senate controlled by Republicans who generally oppose the extension and the House by DFLers who generally support it — the Senate debate offered a stark reminder of vast differences between the parties about the pandemic and the government’s response to it.

GOP: Walz’s use of powers ‘dictatorial’

Republican leaders in the Senate have mostly based their opposition to the emergency declaration around constitutional and economic issues. Gazelka said that Minnesota’s emergency powers law was meant for relatively brief emergencies when a governor needs to act quickly and decisively, such as due to a flood or other natural disasters. And while he supported Walz’s use of those powers in March, the East Gull Lake Republican says the state’s improving case numbers show that need has subsided.

“This has been the longest exercise of emergency powers ever in the state of Minnesota,” Gazelka said. “Yes, there is a pandemic but, no, there is no longer an emergency.”

While closing schools and large swaths of the economy was understandable when the virus was still a mystery and when hospitals had to gear up for an expected flood of patients, Gazelka said, the growth rates have been slowed, and hospitals now have increased capacity of beds and supplies.

Gazelka also noted that most of the 1,504 people who have died of COVID-19 in Minnesota are elderly or had pre-existing health conditions and that none have been under the age of 20.

He also highlighted two issues that have taken on prominence, here and nationally: mask mandates and school reopenings. “Giving the governor emergency powers means that he decides whether schools will be open this fall or not — not your local school district, not your school administrators, but the governor,” he said. “But we know we need kids back in the classrooms.”

Later, he added: “We are willing to shut down schools when not one person under 20 has died.”

Deputy majority leader Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, also based much of her opposition to the emergency powers extension on state constitutional grounds, saying that as a co-equal branch of government, the Legislature should have a role in deciding how to respond to the pandemic.

What triggered the session was not the unfinished work of the regular and first special sessions, after all, but the legal requirement that lawmakers have the opportunity to pass judgment on any extensions of emergency powers, she said. “Covid is still very serious,” Benson said. “But emergency powers give the governor’s decisions the force of law without the benefit of public debate, without the benefit of us as Legislators … having a say.”

But while Gazelka and Benson said they consider the pandemic to be a significant issue, other Senate Republicans expressed doubts about the seriousness of the dangers posed by COVID-19 — and the efficacy of the state’s response.

Some senators, for instance, portrayed Walz’s use of powers as dictatorial. “It’s time to restore Minnesota to the Minnesotans and let us be freemen and freewomen,” said Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka.

Freedom was a common theme. Sen. Andrew Mathews, R-Milaca, said he objects to his position being described as a desire to get back to the way things were before the virus. “I can’t recall one person in my district asking me, ‘Senator, help us get back to normal,’” Mathews said. “I do hear many people standing up and asking me, ‘Senator, let’s get back to freedom.’”

Mathews also said 1,504 deaths is “not very many at all,” considering the dire predictions this spring of 40,000-75,000 deaths, depending on whether the state issued shutdown orders or not. “All of the predictions that have been coming along the way are grossly inaccurate. Many of the people I hear from in my district are not happy about hearing this sky-is-falling-type schtick anymore.”

Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, described “an emergence of dictatorial powers coming from the governor’s office” and said it was “time to stop this unintended social experiment that’s taking place with our children.

“What do we think can happen when you take a group to three-to-10 year olds and you surround them with adults who wear masks, you have the TV playing with fear mongering, with all the media people, you separate families and then you tell kids you’re not going to school, you’re not going to see your playmates?” he asked.

Jensen, a medical doctor, compared COVID-19 to the flu and said the recent infections of 20 to 50 years old will help move the country toward herd immunity.

And Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, took issue with the idea that COVID-19 was historic and unprecedented, saying outbreaks of Ebola and SARS were far more serious. “What is historic and unprecedented is the governor’s response to this,” Kiffmeyer said, adding that her constituents “feel like they are being treated as children in a paternalistic society.”

‘When they hear about ‘One Minnesota,’ what they really hear is ‘One Minneapolis for all of Minnesota,’” Kiffmeyer said, while questioning the effectiveness of masks and the usefulness of any future vaccine.

Senate DFLers: Denial is not a strategy

For their part, DFLers have pointed out that governors in 49 of 50 states, both Republican and Democratic, have retained emergency powers. And that Minnesota’s relatively good COVID-19 numbers are evidence of the effectiveness of the response — not a rationale for ending the emergency, which would take away every executive order Walz has signed under his emergency powers, orders that now include: a suspension of bidding rules to allow the state to purchase supplies quickly; an eviction moratorium; the testing consortium with the University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic; feeding programs for children and seniors; paid leave for those who become sick (or those who care for the sick); and child care for critical workers and other emergency responders.

On Monday, DFLers in the Senate knew that the resolution would pass, but they also knew it would be blocked by the House. Even so, they did try to rebut many if not all of the assertions made by Senate Republicans. “This resolution is akin to sticking your head in the sand,” said Sen. Jason Isaacson, DFL-Shoreview, who pointed to states in the South and West that have seen huge increases in infections as a result of reopening their economies.

Republicans attack Walz’s emergency powers “as if he’s sitting in his mansion by himself twiddling his thumbs wondering what he’s going to do today,” Isaacson continued. “‘Oh, maybe I’ll close the schools, maybe everyone should wear masks.’ The reality is far different. There are really smart people with kids and families, really smart people in and out of our government who are advising the governor all the time on this issue.”

Sen. Melisa Lopez Franzen, DFL-Edina, voted in favor of the Republican resolution on June 13 but voted against on Monday. Her reason: because the Senate has failed to step up and play a stronger role in pandemic response decision-making. That would mean holding hearings on reopening schools and businesses instead of probing the toppling of the Christopher Columbus statue or the state’s response to looting and arson following the homicide of George Floyd, issues that have consumed hours of a joint Senate committee over the last two weeks.

“We do not have this pandemic under control,” she said. “I remember years ago we said hope is not a strategy. Well, neither is denial.” And she said he refused to let her five-year-old son be a political pawn in the partisan debate over schools.

“Let’s stop politicizing and weaponizing a pandemic,” she said.

Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, said emergency powers are meant to give the government the authority to act quickly, citing Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who reversed his reopening of bars and issue a mask mandate in 72 hours in the midst of a surge of cases that required the Houston Chronicle to publish a special 42-page section of obituaries.

“We need to be nimble. We need the executive to be ready to act,” Frenz said. “No disrespect to our Legislature, but it’s not the speediest device ever created.”