The month of November has wrought an unparalleled spike in COVID-19 cases in Le Sueur County, similar to many communities across the state and nation. Within just two weeks, the county confirmed 384 cases, almost double the record high of 207 cases the county saw in October.
“What is happening right now is an explosion,” said Le Sueur County Public Health Director Cindy Shaughenssy. “I’ve heard it described as an avalanche of cases.”
In just a four-day stretch, Le Sueur County confirmed more cases than in the entire month of September. A reported 167 new cases were detected between Nov. 13 to Nov. 16. Sunday, Nov. 15 had a record breaking 82 cases confirmed in one day.
But it’s not just a weekend surge. Cases nearly doubled from 68 in the last week of October and 121 in the first week of November. Now, Le Sueur County sees an average 25 new cases a day, up from an average of nine in October.
It’s a pattern that is happening all across the state of Minnesota. On Oct. 30, the state detected a record 3,155 cases in one day, but by Nov. 14, Minnesota was seeing 8,689 cases. Minnesota now ranks sixth in the nation in new cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days. Neighboring states North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa are ranked in the top three, while Wyoming, Nebraska and Wisconsin are also placed ahead of Minnesota.
The rising cases have prompted executive orders from Gov. Tim Walz prohibiting social gatherings of more than 10 people with members of more than three households and instituting 50-person limits on receptions for weddings and funerals. Bars and restaurants were restricted to 50% capacity on Nov. 13 with a maximum of 150 patrons at a time, and they have been required to close dine-in service by 10 p.m.
There are also growing worries among public health officials that increasing cases could induce a hospital staffing shortage. Not only do hospitals have to keep up with a soaring number of people in need of medical care, they have to care for those patients as more and more staff members are quarantined because they have contracted the coronavirus or have been in contact with someone who has it.
“Four nursing homes in our region that are in a staffing crisis,” said Shaughnessy. “This is a very real problem as we have more and more people testing positive and being isolated and their contacts needing to be quarantined.“
Similar stresses are also being felt by local schools. Across five school districts in Le Sueur County, 61 students and 36 staff members had tested positive for the coronavirus and another 404 students and 13 sports teams had to quarantine due to being in close contact with a positive case. Staffing shortages have pushed districts like Le Sueur-Henderson, Tri-City United and Cleveland into distance learning.
Le Sueur County has recently joined 62 of Minnesota’s total 87 counties where distance learning is recommended by the Minnesota Department of Health. With 51 cases per 100,000 people detected between Oct. 18 and Oct. 31, Le Sueur County has surpassed the state’s 50 person case rate recommendation for distance learning. According to Le Sueur County’s epidemiology projection, the 14-day case rate should rise to 88 cases per 100,000.
Alongside new cases, the coronavirus has killed two people in Le Sueur County this month, bringing up the death toll to eight people. The victims were in their 80s and 90s
Of those who died from the coronavirus in Le Sueur County, three were in their 50s, two were in their 70s and three were in their 80s. Three of the victims were confirmed to have underlying health conditions.
“Knowing who these people are, had they not had COVID, they would still be alive today,” said Shaughnessy. “Whether they had underlying health conditions or not. That’s the sad reality is people are dying when they get this.”
The Le Sueur area saw the most significant increase in COVID-19 cases this month. The city rose from fourth in the county to first with more than 100 new cases reported. On Nov. 16, Le Sueur led the county with 245 cases, followed by Le Center with 224 cases, Montgomery with 189 cases, 187 county residents in New Prague, 73 in Waterville, 41 in Cleveland and Kasota, and 40 in Elysian.
Stopping the spread
The largest cause of the spread of coronavirus in the county has been related to private social gatherings, like wedding and funeral receptions and religious services, said Shaughnessy. Nearly half of all cases have been linked to community spread.
With so much potential for viral spread during social gatherings, the Public Health director, as well as the Center of Disease Control, has advised that people spend their Thanksgiving holiday with just the people they live with.
“Thanksgiving is such a joyous time to be together,” said Shaughnessy. “We hug, we want to see each other, we celebrate with food and with drink, we take our masks off to eat, we have great conversations. But unfortunately, those are the kinds of things that are going to spread this coronavirus.”
The CDC recommends lower risk activities, such as having just a small dinner with members of the same household or a virtual dinner with friends and family, as well as shopping online rather than going to retailers in person for Black Friday, or moderate risk activities, such as a small outdoor cookouts with family and friends, visiting a pumpkin patch or attending small outdoor sporting events.
Face masks have also been recently shown to protect the wearer, as well as others, from contracting COVID-19.
Shaughnessy has also recommended that people be cautious even if they have already contracted the virus. It’s rare, but there are documented cases of people contracting the coronavirus twice: “It does happen a second time, and we don’t know how long immunity lasts, so everyone needs to stay on their guard.”
One of the biggest potential preventative measures is a COVID-19 vaccine. Pfizer and Moderna have released promising data from trial tests showing that their vaccines were more 90% effective in protecting patients from the coronavirus in a preliminary analysis.
“To see these efficacy rates is tremendous news and we’re certainly looking at some light at the end of the tunnel,” said Shaughnessy.
Pfizer could submit their vaccine for emergency FDA approval. If authorized, up to 50 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine could be distributed worldwide by the end of the year, plus 1.3 billion doses in 2021.
If that best-case scenario holds true, Le Sueur County is registered to be one of the many institutions distributing vaccines as well as pharmacies like Walgreens and CVS. Frontline health care staff would be the first to receive the vaccine, followed by residents of long-term care facilities. Once a vaccine is available to the general public, the best way to prevent the spread of coronavirus would be if everyone who can take a vaccine, does.
“Vaccines don’t save lives, vaccinations save lives,” said Shaughnessy. “It’s important that we get these vaccinations into the arms of people so that we are able to move past this pandemic.”