Over the last several days, the number of lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the immediate area has spiked, with Rice County sitting at 30 positive cases and Steele County with 27 as of Tuesday.
It's a trend the counties' public health officials believe this will continue as testing becomes more available.
“I anticipate that we will see those numbers continue to grow in the way that they have over the last few days and we’ll see an additional five every day,” said Deb Purfeerst, the director of Rice County Public Health. “We knew that as soon as there would be increased testing capacity that we would see increased lab confirmed cases, so that was expected.”
Both counties have had one patient admitted to ICU for COVID-19 complications. One Rice County died due to complications from the coronavirus.
Though the confirmed cases have grown drastically, Steele County Public Health Director Amy Caron said that the public should take that as a sign that the virus is spreading at a more rapid rate.
“We know that we have community spread in our counties and across the state, there could be a lot of people out there with mild symptoms that aren’t calling in to get tested,” Caron said, adding that increased testing is allowing Public Health departments to identify hotspots of the virus more quickly and efficiently. “We were testing 1,000 people a day in Minnesota and last week we got to about 2,000 a day. Then we were at 3,500 a day. The goal is to test 20,000 people a day in the state, and seeing testing ramped up we are going to see more positive cases.”
The Minnesota Department of Health reported 455 deaths, up 27 from Monday, with the counts of people currently hospitalized (434) and in intensive care (182) hitting new highs. Total cases since the pandemic began leaped again Tuesday to 7,851, up 617 from the prior day, although department statistics show nearly 60 percent of patients with the disease have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.
"Minnesota's numbers, we are not at our peak yet,” Gov. Tim Walz said Tuesday morning. “There are some dark days ahead of us. But we have changed the calculus on this."
What's the plan?
With the evidence of community spread becoming clearer, both directors say it's more important than ever to take the necessary precautions to slow the spread. Caron said that Public Health departments across the state are working closely with businesses as they slowly begin to open back up. In Steele County that has largely been the manufacturing companies.
“We first started doing some outreach by letter and then by phone calls with our focus first on manufacturing,” Caron said. “We go over what resources are out there and ask a series of questions of what plans they have in place, how they are protecting their employees, incorporating the 6 feet social distancing rule, and the possibility of wearing masks with certain jobs.”
Caron said they also have been putting an emphasis on large manufacturing companies implementing staggered shifts and staggered breaks, to limit the exposure of employees coming in contact with a greater number of people as well as reduce the chance of congregating together during break or lunch time.
“We also go over what their plan is for when they do have a positive case,” Caron said. “My guess is that with all businesses, those of us out there in the community and working are likely among someone who could be positive that have no symptoms or mild symptoms and keep going to work.”
Ideally, Caron said that when a business learns of a confirmed case of COVID-19 among its employees that it shuts down for 24-hours and begins the deep cleaning process, though she knows that is not always an option for certain companies.
“We really encourage them to consider shutting down and do a deep cleaning, though we can’t enforce it,” Caron said. “Even if they close for a couple hours just to clean, though, that is better than nothing.”
In the area, the Daikin facility in Owatonna and the Faribault Foods facility in Faribault have both gone public with known cases of COVID-19 in the last two weeks. As more businesses are moving towars opening following some lifting of restrictions to the governor's stay-at-home order, Purfeerst encourages residents to refer to available resources with how to proceed with the upmost caution.
“We have been reaching out to businesses and encouraging them to review their business strategies and how to safely return to work,” Purfeerst said. “There is a very good guidance and business plan available on the governor’s website that I encourage people to look at.”
The business plan referenced by Purfeerst comes from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development and is linked to the Governor’s Office website under the COVID-19 response. It provides COVID-19 preparedness plans, guidance on which businesses can open and in what format, and links to financial assistance for businesses affected by COVID-19. It can be located at mn.gov/deed/newscenter/covid/safework/business/.
Beyond businesses taking the necessary precautions, both Caron and Purfeerst said that these safety measures are necessary to tamp down the virus' spread.
“The stay-at-home order has slowed this down and allowed our clinics and hospitals to keep up,” Caron said. “Social distancing, staying home when we are sick and wearing cloth masks when out and about where we might run into other people is all we have until there is a vaccine, which is a year to 18 months away.”
Purfeerst echoed Caron, adding that slowing the spread is a community effort.
“I think one of the most important takeaways to this increase in cases is that it serves as a reminder that everyone has a part to play with the mitigation strategy,” she said. “Washing our hands, social distancing and staying home when sick — these recommendations aren’t going to change over the next year and they are all important things that we definitely need to be more mindful of.”
Testing in the area is now available at the Mayo Health Clinic in Owatonna and New Prague, District One Hospital in Faribault, and at the Northfield Hospital. Anyone who suspects they may have the novel coronavirus are asked to call ahead to make an appointment for the drive-thru testing triage.