Minnesota’s fourth confirmed case of COVID-19 is uncomfortably close to home.
Minnesota Department of Health and Olmsted County Public Health officials on Tuesday confirmed the diagnosis of the viral infection, now classified a pandemic by the World Health Organization, in an Olmsted County resident, described as a person in their 50s.
Graham Briggs, the county’s director of public health, said the person recently had traveled internationally to a location where there are confirmed cases of the virus. The person, who was not identified, saw the onset of symptoms on March 5, sought medical care and was tested at Mayo Clinic on March 9, and is now recovering at home.
Although the coronavirus has made its local appearance for the first time, Briggs said the chance of transmitting the virus to the general public is relatively low. He indicated the person in question likely contracted the virus while abroad. Nonetheless, Briggs said the county has been making efforts to contact anyone who may have been at risk from the patient.
Briggs said there are several factors working in favor of the public’s health in regard to this first local case. For one thing, the patient who contracted the virus lives alone. As a result, Briggs said, the county doesn’t have some of the concerns that would arise if the person had been actively involved in a large setting of people.
"We’re currently working with the Minnesota Department of Health to ensure that anyone who has been subsequently exposed is being monitored for symptoms," Briggs said. "Since we know -- or we are confident -- where this case was exposed, we don’t see any evidence at this time of transmission locally."
The person did attend work while showing symptoms of COVID-19, said Kris Ehresmann, Infectious Disease Division director in the Minnesota Department of Health.
"This individual was symptomatic for a time at work and we are working with the workplace," Ehresmann said, speaking at a press conference in St. Paul prior to Olmsted County’s separate briefing event. Ehresmann declined to name the employer, but said the potential exposure of others to the virus was fairly limited. "While there is workplace exposure, we're not looking at thousands of people," she said.
The Olmsted County diagnosis was one of two such diagnoses of COVID-19 in Minnesota on Wednesday. The other one was reported in Ramsey County. There have now been five confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota, and, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Wednesday afternoon, 938 confirmed cases nationwide. Cases have been confirmed in 39 states, according to the CDC.
Both Ehresmann and Briggs tried to assuage public fears about the pandemic. The county health department isn't recommending any changes for individuals or businesses, such as canceling meetings or travel. Higher-risk people, though, are urged to avoid crowds, cruises and air travel, Briggs said.
That being said, Briggs did reference the fact that Rochester is a destination with many people continually arriving and leaving. Because of that, he said there is a potential that the virus could spread widely through the community and affect more people.
In fact, as a result of the growing threat, Assisi Heights announced Wednesday that it is suspending tours, events hosted through the Spirituality Center, and large group meetings "until further notice," according to a press release.
"We are working on building capacity in the community," Briggs said. "This is not a situation to panic (about). We are ready for this; we’ve been preparing for it, actually, for many years now as we’ve moved into pandemic preparedness."
While discussing Olmsted County’s first local case of the illness, Briggs took a moment to reiterate the fact that many reported cases of COVID-19 do not result in serious illness. He said 80 percent of the people who contract the virus will have only relatively mild symptoms.
Besides Briggs, several other officials spoke at the local press conference, including Rochester Mayor Kim Norton, Rochester Public Schools Superintendent Michael Muñoz, and Mayo Clinic spokesman Robert Nellis.
Norton said the city is working with its health partners and noted that, at this time, residents and businesses need to make decisions that make sense for their specific situations. She did not mention any changes being initiated by the city.
Despite the growing concerns regarding the virus, Muñoz said the school district does not have any immediate plans to close schools or the district as a whole. However, he said the district has been in contact with the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Department of Education for information and guidance on responding to the coronavirus.
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