Minnesota and Olmsted County are entering a critical phase when it comes to responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the county's public health director.

“If you go anywhere where there are people right now in Rochester or Olmsted County, it’s likely the virus is in that facility with you,” Graham Briggs said Tuesday.

Speaking to county commissioners, Briggs said the county is seeing warning signs that point to added spread throughout the community.

The county has maintained a roughly 5 percent positive rate for tests performed, which Graham said indicated testing reaching the right people and adequately monitoring the local spread.

“We’d like to see a number under 5 percent, and ideally under 3 percent,” he said. “That tells us we are looking for this hard, and we’re not finding it.”

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Hundreds of Olmsted County residents have been tested on a daily basis. In fact, the county logged 1,021 tests on Monday, a local record.

Briggs said the seven-day average for positive tests has risen to 7.8 percent, with 14.7 percent of tests given on a recent day coming back positive.

“That’s a warning sign here that there is more virus out in the community that we may not be capturing,” he said.

Where weekly case counts had been slowly climbing into the low 200s in recent weeks, the numbers shot up to 419 last week.

Weekly Case Counts by inforumdocs on Scribd

“That’s another warning sign that something is changing in our community and acceleration is occurring rapidly,” he said.

The increase in added cases started last month, when more than 1,000 Olmsted County residents tested positive. During each the previous two months, 500 new cases were found.

County commissioner Gregg Wright said it points to a need for community action.

“We can all do something to keep our community safe, and wearing masks all the time is probably the most important thing -- and the easiest thing -- we can do,” he said, also pointing to the need to maintain safe distances and take other precautions.

The acceleration in new cases is adding stress to public health staff who are trying to track sources of infection and limit spread, Briggs said.

Olmsted County Public Health has been able to interview people with a confirmed COVID-19 test within two days of the test, but as numbers grow, the gap between tests and outreach may widen.

“We want to make sure that is under five to seven days,” he said, adding that each day can increase risks of spreading the virus.

It also threatens the ability to track it. The county has been able to identify risk factors in 81 percent of confirmed cases, meaning only 19 percent of new cases have come without a known exposure to the virus.

Briggs said the increase also means public health officials will start watching hospitalization numbers more closely.

“We’ve crept up to 18 people now (who are) currently hospitalized related to the COVID-19 infection,” he said.

While Mayo Clinic has the capability to add or move beds if needed, Briggs said it’s not just local infections that could drive the need for added space.

“We are not close to any sort of capacity at this point, based on Olmsted residents, but Mayo is also … working regionally and taking patients from outside Olmsted County,” he said, pointing to increasing cases in northern Iowa and western Wisconsin.

At this point, he said, public health officials have done what they can to prepare and encourage safe practices, “but our fate and our destiny really relies on the community and the decisions they make.”

Positive Cases by County

Minnesota Positive Cases

Graph of confirmed cases of COVID-19 by specimen collection date, data in table below.

Minnesota Deaths

Deaths of confirmed cases in Minnesota, data in table below