Rochester Mayor Kim Norton on Friday said using the next few weeks to reverse the course of COVID-19 both locally and throughout the state will take a united effort, with residents agreeing to abide by the restrictions and taking proper precautions when leaving home.

“It’s hard on everyone, but the way to solve this is really quite easy,” she said of wearing masks and maintaining safe distances.

Graham Briggs, Olmsted County’s public health director echoed that, noting local residents can directly help ease pressures on front-line workers, who he said are also the last line of defense against COVID.

“It’s our community that can now protect them,” he said. “It’s the community that we need help from to keep our friends, our neighbors and our loved ones from getting sick as our first line of defense.”

The increase in local COVID-19 cases is taking its toll.

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“Every day, there is definitely a physical and emotional toll that is being taken, especially now that we see the surges,” said Kim Brake, nurse manager of Mayo Clinic’s first general care COVID unit, which was established in March.

She, along with Nikki Rabehl, director of primary care at Olmsted Medical Center, said the Rochester facilities still have available beds, but they are eyeing contingency plans as needs increase for patients needing around-the-clock care.

Brake said the additional beds being used don’t just add stress to the staff caring for COVID patients.

“The emotional toll is also real for the patients and their families by not being able to have visitors due to their COVID-19 diagnosis,” she said.

It means staff members are often the only source of physical contact for a patient as they provide needed support and empathy.

“I’ve also fielded a lot of phone calls from family members who are in tears,” she said. “They feel helpless because they can’t be here with their loved ones who are very sick.”

“I just try to reassure them that we are providing the best care that we can to their loved ones and all of our patients here,” she said.

Meanwhile, Rabehl said added workloads are seen outside hospital units as well, with increased testing, along with the required response by reaching out to each person with a positive test.

The number of daily tests administered by OMC staff climbed from an average of 200 to more than 300 since countywide testing transitioned from drive-through at Graham Park to walk-in testing by the two health care facilities.

Briggs said testing numbers are up countywide, but the percent positive has started to decline from a high of 14% to approximately 11%.

“That’s very good compared to a lot of the places around us,” he said. “This is really a measure of how well we’re doing testing out in the community.”

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean the tide is turning, according to Elie Berbari, Mayo Clinic infectious disease specialist.

“This will continue over the next few weeks,” he said of the uptick in cases, stating actions in October are what led to the November increases, due to delays between exposure to the virus and the development of symptoms that frequently lead to testing.

He said training throughout the pandemic, as well as the development of different strategies for dealing with the sickest patients, means the rate of fatalities may not mirror what was seen in the early months. Still, he said that doesn’t provide license for ignoring the potential fatal outcomes.

“Despite all these advances, there are many, many patients that are progressing and needing intensive care units,” he said.

Each of the medical and public health experts pointed to a single action that can help reduce infected numbers – wearing a mask.

“If we take action today, the results will only be seen two to three weeks from now,” Berbari said.

The combined message from Mayo Clinic and Olmsted Medical Center, with city and county support, came as the state was preparing the implementation of new executive orders slated to start at midnight Friday.

Gov. Tim Walz ordered bars, restaurants, fitness centers and other places of entertainment to close for at least four weeks in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.