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Owatonna schools unable to alert families of possible COVID-19 exposure
  • Updated

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, contact tracing proves to become more and more difficult.

In a message sent out by the Owatonna School District to families Thursday, the district announced beginning Friday, Jan. 14, district staff will no longer be notifying families of close contacts with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

According to the email sent to parents and guardians, due to the currently high rate of COVID-19 transmission and ongoing staffing shortages within the district, it is no longer feasible for the district to trace contact, which also applies to local public health agencies.

Supervisor of School Health Services Amy Jo Havelka said the mask mandate is in place to help reduce exposure, but if a child is present in school, they may still be exposed. Parents are advised to self monitor for symptoms, and if a child in the home is sick to keep them home from school and activities until symptoms subside. It is also recommended to get tested for COVID-19 if symptoms develop.

The Owatonna School District is not alone, as COVID-19 cases have been on the rise statewide for the last two weeks, according to data collected by the Minnesota Department of Health. Other area schools have been closely monitoring their own case rates, doing what they can to keep doors open and students in class. For some districts, however, distance learning is their next step.

Due to rising numbers of positive cases of COVID-19 in Faribault, two schools have moved to distance learning after a message was sent to parents that more than 15% of staff have had to stay home due to COVID-19 or influenza since Jan. 3, which was the first day back following the districts winter break.

The Faribault Middle School will move to online learning Friday, with the high school following suit on Wednesday. Both schools are expected to return to in-person learning Jan. 24.

Similarly, St. Peter Public Schools utilized Thursday’s school day as an at-home flexible learning day. The flexible learning day is followed by a teacher work day Friday. Teachers will utilize the work day for prep time, but students will have the full day off. Students will also have Monday off for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. School officials said adding the flexible learning day before the other two days off for students would assist in slowly the rapid spread of COVID-19 within the district.

Waseca County Public Health Director Sarah Berry said in a time such as now, where there is such a high spread of the disease, contract tracing becomes difficult and sometimes inefficient as high numbers are continually reported.

“In addition to masking, hand washing and social distancing, vaccinations are the best line of defense for those who are eligible to be vaccinated,” Berry said. “The state of Minnesota recently introduced an incentive program for 5 to 11-year-olds to get vaccinated. It’s a win-win.”

The MDH is offering $200 Visa gift cards to Minnesota families who get their children between the ages of 5 and 11 fully vaccinated between Jan. 1 and Feb. 28.

Steele County Public Health Assistant Director Amber Aaseth said a spike in COVID-19 and influenza A cases were anticipated following the holidays, but the rapid spread caught some off guard.

“The most important thing is for people to get vaccinated and to stay home if they are sick,” Aaseth said. “Our health care professionals are spent, and hospitals are full, so we all need to be smart and do what we can to slow down the spread of all these illnesses.”

Due to the rapid rise in positive cases, Owatonna Public Schools are pulling together in order to avoid moving to a distance learning model. For the first time since 2020, a two-week mask mandate began Wednesday and remains in effect until Jan. 26.

Testing is available in Owatonna at CompCare Clinics, Mayo Clinic Health System, Hy-vee Pharmacy, and Walgreens.

More information on the “Kids Deserve a Shot” program through the Minnesota Department of Health can be found at

Your COVID and omicron surge questions, answered by a doctor

COVID infections are off the charts in Minnesota. This week, the state hit a new all-time high in the pandemic, averaging more than 10,000 cases a day. The real number of cases could be even higher because at-home tests are not tallied by the state health department.

At the national level, one in every 60 Americans has tested positive in the last week alone.

Of course, people want to know how to stay safe and what might come next. So we asked our Minnesota Now audience for questions to ask Dr. Susan Kline, an infectious disease expert and professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

The acting head of the FDA said most people are going to get COVID. What’s your response to this?

I didn’t hear her quote directly until what you just told me now. I would think [it’s] not necessarily a foregone conclusion that everybody will end up getting COVID. I still think that these measures we’ve been taking — such as vaccination, wearing masks [when] we’re in close proximity to others, especially in indoor spaces — I think that still works. I don’t want to throw up our hands and say we can’t prevent it, period. I think there are still things we can do to help protect people from getting COVID.

Dr. Anthony Fauci recently said infection with omicron might not provide immunity against potential new variants. Do you agree?

I think the new variants will be an ongoing challenge. And we have seen that a few times in the last couple of years — in particular this summer, when the delta surge hit the U.S. and our state going into the fall and early winter. Now we’re seeing it with omicron.

We do know that these variants differ from each other in their mutations, and the mutations can affect [the ability of] our body’s immune system to recognize the variant and respond to it in an efficient way. And so some of the antibodies from previous vaccines [or variants] may not be as effective as they were with the original strain.

So many people are getting omicron — including those who are vaccinated, boosted or have had COVID. Does this mean vaccines don’t work?

I think what we’re seeing suggests that they have reduced effectiveness against omicron. But I think it’s too early to say they don’t work at all. Really, I think that probably it’s still benefiting your immune system to have that prime from the vaccination, and it puts you in a better position than if you’ve never been vaccinated.

There’s very good evidence with delta now that the vaccines did exactly that. They still help decrease hospitalizations and deaths.

This omicron strain in our country has been going on for just a short period of time, so we’re still gathering that information about omicron. I think that we can say [vaccination is] likely going to give you some protection [against omicron], but not as much protection as you had against the original strain or even against the delta variant. But that’s primarily based on laboratory testing, not a lot of real-world data yet. We’re still waiting for all that real-world data to come in.

What’s the prognosis for an older person with underlying conditions who gets omicron?

I think the good news, based on what we’ve heard so far, is that omicron does not seem to be causing as severe [of] disease as some of the earlier variants that we have seen, even with underlying conditions. But [the vaccines] may not protect people completely. We are seeing people getting admitted to the hospital who have had vaccines. We are seeing proportionately more people getting admitted to the hospital, though, who have not been vaccinated, and fewer that have been vaccinated, especially those that have had three doses.

Will we soon reach the 70 percent herd immunity we’ve heard we needed to end the pandemic, or has that percentage changed? Do we even care about herd immunity?

I think, based on the data that’s coming in nationally, that 70 percent herd immunity is not going to be good enough, because there are quite a few states, especially in the northeast, that had over 75 percent of their state population vaccinated [and] are still seeing these surges in omicron. So I think the idea of herd immunity is changing. I think it’s probably going to require a higher level of vaccination and some natural infection. I think it’s closer probably — and this is just an estimate — to 90, 95 percent.

If someone is vaccinated then gets COVID, does that infection effectively serve as a ‘booster dose’?

There is some data showing that if you were vaccinated and then subsequently had infection, that it does boost your immune system and help protect you against future variants. But how long that will last? I don’t think we know for sure. So my recommendation would be: If [people] had their primary series, and then they get COVID, and then they’ve recovered — I would still recommend getting the booster vaccine.

How long is a vaccinated person contagious if they contract COVID?

We do have some data from sites around the world suggesting that people who have been vaccinated shed the virus. [But] they’re potentially contagious for shorter periods of time compared to those who have not been vaccinated. The studies do show that people, even those who have been vaccinated and then become infected, can still have that virus in their nose for seven days.

Man charged with 7 felonies for alleged years long sexual assault of woman
  • Updated

An Owatonna man is facing several felony charges after it was reported that he had allegedly been sexually assaulting a woman in her sleep over a five-year timeframe.

Zachary John-Michael Haessig, 31, was charged by summons Wednesday in Steele County District court with four counts of third-degree criminal sexual conduct, two counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct and one count of fifth-degree criminal sexual conduct. The charges include assaulting a victim who is mentally impaired/physically helpless and using coercion and force.

According to the criminal complaint, Owatonna police were dispatched to the emergency room Oct. 14 for a report of a sexual assault. The victim allegedly told police Haessig has been sexually assaulting her one to two times a week for the last five years, with the last assault happening on Oct. 8. Police offered to meet with the victim and a victim advocate at the Crisis Resource Center, according to the report, but as they were leaving the advocate said Haessig appeared at the emergency room and would not leave. Haessig then allegedly followed the victim back to the CRC.

At the CRC, the victim allegedly told police a friend called an ambulance to bring her to the emergency room after she had a panic attack. According to court documents, the victim said Haessig began sexually assaulting her and raping her in her sleep in early 2017. The victim reportedly confronted Haessig about it in 2021 and he denied it. After the confrontation, the victim said the assaults started happening more frequently, according to the report. The victim allegedly said there were times she would wake up during the assault and tell Haessig to stop, but that he would hold her down and continue.

A sexual assault kit was completed at the emergency room and taken into evidence, according to court records.

Haessig’s next court appearance is scheduled for Feb. 18.