Serving as Rice County Public Health director during the current pandemic has been a humbling experience! As healthcare professionals, we like to know the answers, understand the science, plan and prepare and implement best practices — challenging to do during a pandemic.

The last five months have been a whirlwind of rapidly changing information in the world of public health, and we know this won’t be over anytime soon. But be assured, we are here to serve and do the best we can to help protect the health and safety of those in our community.

Widespread community transmission of COVID-19 is occurring throughout Minnesota, including Rice County. This week our county recorded over 300 lab confirmed cases of COVID-19, placing us at the highest incidence rate in southeast Minnesota and a ranking of eight out of 87 Minnesota counties with an incidence rate of 453 cases per 100,000. We have seen a rapid increase in cases over the last few weeks, somewhat driven by previous limited testing availability, however being identified as having the fastest growth in incidence rate in the U.S. over a two-week period of time is not what we want for the health of our community.

Much has changed for all of us over the last months. Elderly are confined in their homes and long-term care settings without the opportunity for hugs from family members, people have had to shelter in place with limited social interaction, workers have experienced job loss, businesses have needed to close their doors, children are missing teachers and school friends, parents are stressed trying to balance work with meeting their children’s educational needs, and the list goes on.

But we have also been reminded of the important things in life — the joy of hugs, the significance of kindness, the value of health and supportive family and friends, and our need for social interaction and economic stability.

I have been reminded daily of how grateful I am to be part of this local community. Daily I see health care professionals selflessly continuing to care for those in need during uncertain times and the risk of a newly emerging virus, businesses proactively working to ensure the health and safety of their employees, public safety workers willingly responding to resident needs not knowing where “the virus” lurks, friends and neighbors helping each other out, and city, county and elected officials being flexible and adapting plans and policies as needed to try and meet the health and safety needs of the public.

Sadly, I am also seeing the disproportionate impact disease can have for members of our community. Those with limited incomes, inadequate housing, social isolation and underlying health conditions are bearing a much greater disease burden. The virus doesn’t discriminate — but it exacerbates disparities even within smaller communities such as our own.

I am especially proud of and grateful for our Rice County Public Health staff. They have been asked to quickly change operations and learn new skills, while continuing to provide public health services in different ways. “Zoom,” outdoor walking meetings, and virtual WIC appointments are the new norm. Services such as home care and immunizations have continued in order to safely support our vulnerable populations and keep children vaccinated, with staff garbed in an array of “PPE” (personal protective equipment) to protect our clients and staff.

We are providing essential services to support those needing to be in isolation or quarantine by delivering face masks, cleaning supplies, thermometers, or arranging for food delivery; helping community partners with neighborhood food delivery; convening a plethora of calls and meetings with Rice County partners; responding to calls from those who are worried or need guidance; providing case investigation and contact tracing to help slow the spread of disease and going door to door distributing health education in multiple languages to ensure everyone is aware of local resources and guidance during the pandemic.

Rice County Public Health is committed to doing the best job we can amid constantly changing guidance and requests. In addition, our Rice County emergency response team members have been invaluable in providing guidance, wisdom and support as we are responding to ever changing needs. Call us if needed – we are here to help. Rice County COVID-19 Helpline: 507-384-6459.

Also please remember that the healthcare system is here to help you. It is safe to go to our clinics and hospitals. We want you to followup with your healthcare needs. If you have COVID-19 symptoms, most typically fever, cough, and shortness of breath, you should get tested. Testing is now widely available in Faribault at Allina Health/District One Hospital or HealthFinders Collaborative, in Northfield at Northfield Hospital & Clinics, and in Owatonna at Mayo Clinic Health System. Call your healthcare provider or find specific testing site locations and hours here: mn.gov/covid19/for-minnesotans/ifsick/testing-locations.

This is a challenging time, but we will recover.

In the meantime, wash your hands, social distance, wear your mask when in public and unable to maintain a 6-foot distance, get tested if you have symptoms and stay informed.

Visit our website for more information: co.rice.mn.us/256/Public-Health or follow us on our Rice County Public Health Facebook site, facebook.com/RiceCountyPublicHealth.

Deb Purfeerst is the director of Rice County Public Health. Reach her at dpurfeerst@co.rice.mn.us.

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