COVID-19 has changed our community. Six months ago, when we began responding locally, no one could have predicted how much. We have endured Stay At Home orders side-by-(virtual)side, and are working under Stay Safe recommendations together. The disease has had economic, physical, and mental impacts on us, our loved ones, and our neighbors. Together, most of us are weathering the storm. Some have not. We now have lost four neighbors to COVID-19. This is not an inflated number. These were neighbors who, even with their existing health conditions, should have otherwise made it through 2020. We have also lost neighbors prematurely due to isolation and loneliness. Balancing the health of a community in normal times is difficult. Finding a balance now is impossible, but together our health partners are doing the best that they can with an impossible situation. Please, continue to patiently ask the hard questions and carefully listen as we dialogue together. Compassion and patience will be required for patients, workers and family as we map our path through the next six months.

Currently, we find ourselves working under the Governor’s Executive Order 20-81 which requires face coverings in indoor spaces and suggests using them when outside if your activities will bring you closer than 6 feet to people who do not share your household. While early data about masks had mixed reviews, as we learn more about COVID-19 we know that face coverings can reduce disease spread. Here in Waseca County, some might look at our recent case counts and argue it’s not helping. Examples show the opposite. In Waseca County, we have not seen an outbreak associated with a place of business, so we do know that masking and distancing in these settings works. Recently, Public Health and our local law enforcement partners also have been responding to complaints about patrons and workers who do not adhere to the requirements. Between complaints, and concerns over our rising infection rates, our area was recently targeted by DPS, MDH and DLI for compliance checks in establishments with on-sale liquor licenses. While we didn’t get a perfect score, most establishments and patrons were found to be doing their part. Thank you.

Why the extra cases then? When we look closely at our data, we can see two settings where contact is so close that masks will not completely prevent all spread – households, and congregate care settings. When you live together, especially in conditions that are very close with many shared items, COVID-19 can spread rapidly. Our partners at congregate care facilities, like nursing homes and correctional facilities, are working hard every day to keep residents and workers safe. They screen workers and they do regular testing so that when illness is found it can be better and more quickly contained. But COVID-19 works against them, by complicating our response with two key issues. Not all people with COVID-19 have signs or symptoms; some can spread the virus days before they develop symptoms, and some never develop symptoms but can transmit the disease.

Additionally, we hear reports about cases where people were socially active, but not observing distancing and masking in settings where they felt comfortable. Weddings, parties, and visiting with friends and relatives have all been listed as exposure settings. When we are with people who look and feel well, we become complacent. The fact is that after six months, we’re tired. We have a strong desire to put this all behind us. Unfortunately, wishing it was behind us does not keep our children in school, and it does not keep our neighbors from being hospitalized or dying.

As we open the school year, our local case counts take on a new importance. We do know that our two-week case rate has elevated and continues to climb. Public Health has had numerous conversations with our school partners, as well as representatives from the Minnesota Department of Health, to examine total case counts and places of exposure, looking for trends that would indicate community spread is at a level where schools will likely adjust their learning model to prevent further community spread. Our rates are heading the wrong direction. Some of this is impacted by the facilities mentioned above, and while we need to be aware that workers in facilities come and go from our community, the residents do not. This is taken into consideration when we consult and provide recommendations. Recently, it was discovered that our local Federal Corrections Institution test results experienced a delay in being loaded into the state’s reporting system. This has resulted in additional case counts that will show on our next two-week case rate. We worked together to adjust the reporting process and prevent the delay, just as we have all worked together and adjusted as we have learned more and more about COVID-19 and prevention methods these last months.

What has become clear this year is that slowing the spread of COVID-19 is up to everyone in our community. No matter what orders are in place, without your help COVID-19 will continue to spread. Please, wash your hands and use hand sanitizers frequently, and physically distance by staying 6 feet away from people you do not live with. If you do become ill, call your health care provider before you go in to be seen. If you are ill with any COVID-19 symptoms or test positive, please stay home until you are fever-free for 24 hours and have improvement of respiratory symptoms or 10 days — whichever is longer. And, if you are in close contact of a case, remain home for the full 14 days, regardless of whether you test negative.

Sarah Berry is the Waseca County Public Health Director.

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