Owatonna Hy-Vee

Masks and social distancing markers have become a staple in grocery stores, like Hy-Vee, as the novel coronavirus continues to keep the world in a state of pandemic. Following the statewide mask mandate, local Public Health officials are still concerned about a second wave of COVID-19 cases coming to southeast Minnesota in the near future. (APG file photo)

Rice County surpassed a total 1,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases Tuesday, the number of cases in the area has slowed. But for how long?

Steele County Public Health Director Amy Caron this week said all indicators show that Minnesota, including the southeast part of the state, is on the verge of the second wave of novel coronavirus cases.

“For a while we were kind of in a lull,” Caron said about the cases in Steele County, which currently sit at a cumulative 334 with about 244 out of isolation and one person who has been hospitalized for the three weeks.

“The last two weeks it has definitely started to pick up slightly, and if you look at the overall Minnesota stats … the positivity rate is inching up. Statewide, a couple weeks ago, we were sitting below 200 people being hospitalized and now we’re over 300 again.”

In Rice County, Public Health Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Tracy Ackman-Shaw said that data from the last two weeks have shown a dip in new daily cases, going from up to 10 a day to now seeing one or two a day. Ackman-Shaw said that within the last two weeks Rice County even saw a day where no new cases were reported.

“Before we had kind of a lot of young adults among our confirmed cases and there were concerns about bars and restaurants adding to the spread,” Ackman-Shaw said. “We have seen that slow down and now there isn’t as much of a boom in one age group, it’s just kind of across the board, but our average age is still a bit younger at 35 years-old for new cases in the last two weeks.”

The younger demographic continues to be the biggest area of concern for Caron, who has found that age group harder to reach and convince that COVID-19 is a serious threat that puts them and others at risk. She said she is thankful for the mask mandate in hopes that it will create better habits for those in their 20s and 30s.

“The state mask mandate has been very helpful in normalizing wearing a mask a little bit,” Caron said. “It shows everyone that it’s OK to wear a mask, that it’s not a freak thing to walk into a store with one on, and that everyone’s doing it.”

Caron said Public Health has teamed up with United Way of Steele County for a mask campaign, working with different groups to help get cloth masks and make them readily available for those who need them. She said the group has canvassed some of the businesses in Owatonna to provide masks for patrons who enter the business without one.

“I think the mandate took a lot of pressure off the businesses so that they didn’t have to make that decision,” Caron said.

Informing people of the importance of wearing masks is what Ackman-Shaw identifies as the biggest concern in Rice County regarding COVID-19 at the moment, noting that even if people are outside they should consider wearing a mask if they’re with a group of people. Though it is not required to wear a mask when outside, Ackman-Shaw said that it still help prevent the spread — especially if people aren’t adhering to the 6-foot social distancing guideline.

“We understand that it’s hard work to always have a mask with you, and that it’s hard because people are fatigued and tired of having to live while following these rules and tired of hearing about COVID. We get that,” Ackman-Shaw said. “But we don’t want people to underestimate how awful this disease can be for many, many people, including their own friends, families and neighbors.”

Caron said that in recent weeks her staff has also noticed that it is getting more difficult to trace the origin of infection in the new cases, adding that the spread of the virus has become more sporadic, serving as an indicator that community spread is increasing

“This likely means that someone could be carrying the virus and showing no symptoms and not getting tested,” Caron said. “This is a huge red flag for us.”

Caron’s concerned that the younger population may still be operating under the notion that COVID-19 doesn’t pose a serious threat to their demographic because of their age and overall good health, but the reality, she said, is the virus is on track to become as common as cancer in terms of how many people are directly impacted by a positive case.

“A good six months is a long time for a virus to hang around, and considering we’re potentially looking at a second peak starting here soon, I think it’s safe to say that we’re in this for the long haul,” Caron said. “You have to think beyond yourself and try to think of others. We’re affecting other people and it could be their lives that are in real danger.”

Ackman-Shaw echoed Caron, saying that it is on each individual to make decisions that will impact public health.

“Our goal is for places to remain open and for people to remain healthy,” Ackman-Shaw said. “We just need to apply the masks to allow that to happen.”

Meeting all needs

In an effort to reach out to everyone in the community during this time, Rice County has been working closely with the Somali Community Resettlement Service to help meet the needs of area’s immigrant population. Sara Coulter, clinic and community supervisor for Rice County Public Health, said that increasing its ability to equitably communicate across the county has been a top priority for Public Health since the beginning of the pandemic.

“We have various needs within our community members, so early one we decided to develop a video featuring our staff and send it out on social media platforms,” Coulter said. “We discussed in their language how the disease spreads, how we can both isolate and quarantine at home, and various procedures regarding COVID-19. It feels like for an oral culture that the videos have been a good way to get the information out, it’s nice to be able to hear something in our own language and it’s just not adequate enough to be simply translating materials.”

Coulter said Public Health, with the help of the Resettlement Service, provided a video Q&A session with older members of the local Somali community to help alleviate the concerns some may have had and how Public Health could better serve them. The conversation mainly revolved around workplace protection and vaccine information, but Coulter said more than anything it served as an opportunity for those joining the call to have the information they’d already been receiving elsewhere affirmed.

“We really are all on the same page, and we just want to make sure there’s an understanding that this is going to be awhile and that the community will look and feel different for some time,” Coulter said, adding that it was important for this demographic of the community to feel both heard and prioritized. “This is really just one right way to hear from and share with this community. Now the challenge is what does the community need from us and what are unmet needs that we need to hear about.”

“There is always more we can do,” Coulter continued. “We are a whole community, and all of this will depend on how we respond as a community. Individual behaviors at this time will determine if our kids can be in school or if our economy can stay open. We need to look at each other as friends and as neighbors and stay connected.”

Reach Reporter Annie Granlund at 507-444-2378 or follow her on Twitter @OPPAnnie. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota.

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