MANTORVILLE — Depending on what you'd like to do in Dodge County, you might need to bring a mask.
If you have business in the courtrooms at the Dodge County Courthouse, a mask is required. That's also the policy at Dodge County Public Health in Dodge Center, said Dodge County Administrator Jim Elmquist.
"In the last 11 days, we’ve had 44 new cases," he said. "At this point in time, I have posed the question to (county) public health, and they've posed the question to (the Minnesota Department of Health)."
At Tuesday's county board meeting, masks and the changing COVID-19 transmission rates in the community will most likely be a topic of conversation, Elmquist said.
Dodge County isn't the only one discussing COVID and masks.
Brenda Pohlman, health educator for Fillmore County Public Health, said the topic will be on the agenda in Preston next week.
"We’ve seen an increase in the number of cases that’s comparable to what we saw in February of this year," she said. "If you look at the historical increases, that’s where we are."
While no government buildings in Fillmore County require masks, Pohlman said she encourages masking up for people in vulnerable populations, such as those who are immunocompromised, those who cannot be vaccinated for health reasons, or anyone who might be vulnerable due to their job.
For example, she said, anyone working at a congregate care facility likely is required to wear a mask at work due to restrictions on the job. She would encourage those people to wear masks indoors, where there might be confined spaces.
"If they feel comfortable wearing a mask, I'd encourage them to wear it as a preventative strategy," Pohlman said. "We need to use the strategies in our toolbox that we know what works."
In the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Fillmore County is listed as having substantial community transmission rates. At the "substantial or high" level, the CDC recommends "fully vaccinated people to wear a mask in public indoor settings."
That recommendation is not a mandate, however.
Dodge County, one of six in Minnesota, is classified as "high" for community transmission rates. Amy Caron, the county's director of public health, said the rate of increase is "alarming."
"We look at the positivity rate — those tested vs. those who test positive," she said. "We want to see that under 5%. This is a red flag because of that uptick. We’ve had low numbers."
As recently as early July, the county was listed as "low" for positive COVID tests. That can partly be attributed to the low number of tests being conducted. While the positivity rate should not care about the number of tests, the low sample size can lead to inaccurate results.
Currently, the county's percent positivity is 12.05%. Meanwhile, Fillmore County has a percent positivity of 5.88%.
Around the region, the CDC reports percent positivity in Goodhue County as 4.07%, Wabasha County at 5.32%, Winona County at 9.76%, Houston County at 4.76%, Mower County at 3.47%, and Olmsted County at 4.18%. In Southeast Minnesota, only Mower and Wabasha counties are currently listed as having moderate transmission rates.
As for what causes these differences, the vaccination rates play some part.
For example, outside of Olmsted County, which has the most individuals both with a first vaccination shot (65.5%) and with both vaccination shots (60.9%), Wabasha County is next best with 65% and 58.4%, respectively. However, Mower County, which also has moderate community transmission levels, is at 52% and 49.1%, lower numbers than Fillmore County, at 59% and 54.7%.
Meanwhile, Houston County, which has a substantial community transmission rate, has the lowest numbers, at 44.2% and 35.6%. Dodge County, with the highest community transmission rates in the region, sits in the middle of the pack, at 50.8% and 46.8%, which is roughly in the middle of the range of the region.
In Wabasha County, County Administrator Michael Plante said the COVID-19 infection numbers have been fairly steady until a slight uptick that occurred this past weekend.
"We're certainly mindful of the numbers that have been reported," he said. "We're going to keep paying attention to it, and follow the recommendations from the CDC and MDH."
Like most counties in the area, Plante said Wabasha County's buildings advise people to wear a mask indoors if they want to, but there is no mandate to wear masks now, and he hopes it does not come to that in the future.
Caron said while she's aware of some recent positive cases among vaccinated individuals in Dodge County, she suspects some of those are individuals who contracted a COVID-19 variant.
She said everyone in the public health department wears a mask.
"We work with some vulnerable populations," she said.
When the county board meets next week, Caron said if asked, she'll advise the county board to opt for whatever option helps maintain public health.