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COVID-19 pandemic starting to 'settle down' in Steele County
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The COVID-19 pandemic is “really starting to settle down” in Steele County, according to Public Health Director Amy Caron.

“For the second consecutive week in a row, we had three new positive cases each week, which is really great news for us,” Caron said Monday in her weekly COVID update on Facebook.

Steele County has had 3,979 total cases since the beginning of the pandemic and 16 residents have died of COVID, Caron said. Fourteen people were in isolation as of Monday due to being a positive case, which doesn’t include residents quarantining because they were a close contact to a positive case.

The COVID test positivity rate for Minnesota is at 0.91%, which is the lowest it has been since the spring of 2020, Caron said.

Steele County residents should still take precautions such as staying home when sick and wearing a mask if they can’t social distance and it’s unknown if the people around them are vaccinated. Residents who have symptoms should still get tested for COVID, she said.

The number of Steele County residents older than 16 who have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine increased by 1% last week. Steele County’s vaccination rate for 16 and older is just shy of 62% and Caron pointed out that the county is closing in on having a similar vaccination rate to the state, which is 66%.

About a quarter of Steele residents ages 12-15 and 43% of residents ages 16-17 have received at least one vaccine dose. Nearly half of Steele residents 18-49 and 67% of residents ages 50-64 have received at least one dose. Eighty-nine percent of Steele residents older than 65 have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to MDH.

In her weekly update, Caron asked residents who haven’t been vaccinated or know people who haven’t been vaccinated to consider receiving the vaccine. Steele County Public Health is now offering all three vaccines, Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson and Johnson, at its weekly vaccine clinic held every Wednesday in the Public Health parking lot.

“If we can get that number up there and get it closer to that 70%, I think we’ll be doing better than we are right now,” Caron said.

Anyone who wants to receive a vaccination at the Public Health clinic can make an appointment by visiting the Public Health page online at co.steele.mn.us or by calling 507-444-7650.

Owatonna Workforce Center one step closer to potential reopening

The Minnesota Senate passed a comprehensive Jobs and Economic Growth bill Tuesday that includes the necessary funding to reopen the Minnesota Workforce Center in Owatonna, which closed unexpectedly in spring 2018 due to lack of funds.

Sen. John Jasinski (R-Faribault) authored the provision in the bill that would provide $275,000 in both 2022 and 2023 for workforce development in Owatonna and the Steele County area through the reopening of the center. The center will provide career education, wraparound support services and job skills training in high-demand manufacturing fields.

Brad Meier, president of the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism who has been a vocal advocate in reopening the center over the last three years, said this is a critical resource that the Owatonna area has been missing out on during a crucial time.

“We’re the only community in Minnesota with a population over 20,000 that does not currently have a workforce center,” Meier said. “It feels we are being left out of the mix – we need that resource.”

Meier said the weight of not having a workforce center has been felt on the local business community, specifically because of the timing of when the doors shuttered. Though the unemployment rate was low at the time, Meier said there was already a workforce shortage prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now the shortage is glaring.

“We have been able to make it through this period, but it’s definitely been missed,” Meier said. “We’ve been having to direct people to the Faribault location, which is inconvenient for the employees and inconvenient for the delivery of these services.”

Meier, who has testified before the Legislature in recent years, said the Owatonna community is disproportionately excluded from benefiting from workforce development funds that come from the state.

“Businesses in Owatonna have been paying into this fund every year,” Meier said. “In fact, they are consistently paying more in than what gets expended in our community.”

When the center first closed in April 2018, the administrative team made it clear that it was due to a reduction in public resources, not a drop in demand. While the focus of the centers throughout the state had shifted from unemployed people to under-employed people, the centers continue to see an increase interest in work-based training, apprenticeships, internships and mentorships.

During the last year the center was open at Riverland College in Owatonna, 464 individuals enrolled in the program to receive a variety of services. The number reflects those who had enrolled in the Dislocated Worker program, the Steele County Out of School Youth program, the Steele County In-School Youth program, and the job club attendees. This number, however, does not include walk in customers who used the resource area, met with a counselor, inquired about job postings, and a variety of other in-person services.

The bill is still waiting a vote from the Minnesota House of Representatives, which is scheduled to return to the floor on Friday. If passed, the bill will also need to be signed by Gov. Tim Walz.

Other key provisions in the bill include the creation of the Main Street Economic Revitalizations Program and the Main Street COVID-19 Relief programs to assist businesses statewide faced with financial hardship, expanding options for individuals to receive unemployment insurance benefits while simultaneously receiving workforce training services, expansion of workplace accommodation for pregnant and nursing mothers, the removal of provisions that makes high school students ineligible for unemployment benefits, and the inclusion of the “Wedding Barn Bill” to ensure smaller venues are not forced to take on massive financial investments to install sprinklers.