While the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Rice County has jumped precipitously, nearly 35 percent of the recent increase is due to a spike in cases at Faribault’s prison.

As of Thursday, 733 Rice County residents had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. Also Thursday, the death of a fourth county resident, an individual in their 50s, was attributed to the virus.

Rice County has the sixth highest incidence rate of the coronavirus in the state and the second highest in southern Minnesota, with 896 per 100,000 residents. In southern Minnesota, only Mower County has a higher incidence rate, with 1,457 per 100,000 residents.

Deb Purfeerst, Rice County’s public health director, said a large number of Mower County cases are workers in its factories and meat-packing plants.

“We have been very fortunate in Rice County,” she told commissioners during the board’s Tuesday meeting. “We have not had any outbreaks in Rice County factories. They’ve doing a very good job with screening.”

Early this month, the state Department of Corrections announced its first case of COVID-19 at Minnesota Correctional Facility-Faribault. As of Thursday, 158 MCF-Faribault inmates has tested positive. That’s out of 1,740 tests. The facility is the state’s largest and typically houses around 2,000 minimum- and maximum-security prisoners. All 158 remain in isolation.

Three staff members have tested positive, the MDH reported. Two have recovered/returned to work.

The numbers continue to show more men in Rice County have COVID-19 than women. On Tuesday morning, Purfeerst reported 436 men and 258 women had been confirmed to have the virus. The southern portion of the county has a far greater number: 609 had Faribault addresses, 74 had Northfield addresses.

While about 22% percent were imprisoned, 67.5% live in a private residence. Only 1% lived in a group home or were in a long-term care facility.

The numbers are also skewed when it comes to race.

According to 2010 U.S. Census figures, 86% of Rice County residents were white, 6% were black. In Faribault, 77% were white, 14% were black. About 35% of those with confirmed cases of COVD-19 are black, Purfeerst said, 23% are white.

While those numbers are concerning, Purfeerst and Public Health Department staff meet regularly with leaders of the local Somali community to help educate them on the virus, how it’s spread and how to protect themselves and others. They’ve also created a video in Somali to help spread the message further.

Courts reopen

The virus is an issue the sheriff’s office is dealing with as well. According to Rice County’s Troy Dunn, his office is doing more testing of inmates coming in to the county jail. They’re currently at about 50% occupancy, but expect the population to rise again now that the courts are reopening. That will make distancing between prisoners increasingly difficult.

Once of the biggest issues, he said Tuesday, is if a prisoner they’re transporting shows COVID-19 symptoms. That requires the vehicle be professionally cleaned and sanitized, taking it out of service for one to three days. Dunn also expressed concern that the Department of Health is not releasing the addresses of anyone with a confirmed case to law enforcement as it had initially announced.

“You just have to assume everyone has it,” said Purfeerst. “It does burn through a lot of (personal protective equipment).

Reach Regional Managing Editor Suzanne Rook at 507-333-3134. Follow her on Twitter @rooksuzy. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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