It’s too early to say whether a recent uptick in COVID-19 cases is part of a larger trend.
On Sunday, Olmsted County hit 53 confirmed active cases per 100,000 residents, with 84 new cases documented within seven days.
“We’re one of the more highly vaccinated counties in the nation,” Olmsted County Public Health Director Graham Briggs said. “We’re not sure exactly how protected that’s going to be against the delta variant.”
He said the aggressive strain appears to be driving the increase in local cases, but the longer impact is unclear.
“There’s a lot we don’t know about it yet, and we are still figuring it out everyday,” Briggs said of the delta variant.
For now, the increase has renewed talk of mask mandates and recommendations.
A new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classification system prompts an indoor masking recommendation whenever the rate tops 50 cases per 100,000 residents.
As of Sunday, only three of the eight counties in Southeast Minnesota were below the threshold.
With 84 new local cases within a week, the community should take the CDC masking recommendations seriously, Briggs said.
County Administrator Heidi Welsch said that as of Wednesday, all employees and visitors to county buildings will be required to wear masks, and local businesses are encouraged to take their own steps, when appropriate.
On Monday, Rochester City Administrator Alison Zelms said the city will monitor data as it determines its next steps. She said reacting too quickly could send inconsistent messages if the classification is reversed.
“I think it’s prudent to continue to monitor,” she said, noting the city’s emergency operations center team is meeting Thursday to discuss what it considers to be the appropriate response.
Rochester council member Molly Dennis said Monday she was ready to vote on a city mandate, but her fellow council members suggested waiting.
“For the next couple days, we just ask for people’s patience and ask people to make their own choices,” Rochester Mayor Kim Norton said, noting next steps could be announced after Thursday’s operations team meeting.
Briggs said he’s hoping the local vaccination rate, along with precautions like masking in public, will help stem any future spread.
Nearly 81 percent of eligible Olmsted County residents have received at least a single dose of one of three available vaccines.
Welsch said the rates are higher in Rochester, with 90 percent of residents in the 55901 northwest Rochester ZIP code vaccinated. Other ZIP codes in the city have rates higher than 80 percent.
Welsch said the county’s lowest rate is seen in Oronoco's ZIP code, where less than 70 percent are vaccinated.
The 70 percent threshold is seen as the goal to interrupt community spread.
Reaching the threshold doesn’t mean the virus' delta variant won’t continue to spread.
John O’Horo, a Mayo Clinic physician, said the locally high vaccination rate helps guard against the hospital overcrowding and deaths seen in other parts of the country.
“Vaccination, for those who have not chosen to do so, is really the best thing you can do to reduce your risk of hospitalization or death,” he said.
Briggs said it all points to the need for personal and community action.
“We understand that and respect that the public isn’t going to be excited by this,” he said of masking recommendations. “Local data is again showing us it’s time to act.”