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Olmsted County health director: 'We're basically going straight up'

County health officials say they're starting to see a strain on the system as COVID-19 cases rise in Olmsted County.

Graham Briggs
Graham Briggs
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COVID-19 cases and the rate of transmission in Olmsted County continue to set new highs, with no indication the upward trajectories are flattening, health officials said Thursday.

As of Monday, Olmsted County is now seeing a seven-day rolling average of more than 73 new COVID-19 cases per day, compared to almost 33 new cases per day the week before that.

“We’re basically going straight up,” said Graham Briggs, director of Olmsted County Public Health.

The high case counts are starting to put a strain on contact tracers who are working to track the spread of the virus.

Their workload and some rough treatment from people they contact has made their jobs more difficult, Briggs said. In a situation update Thursday, he asked for people to cooperate with contact tracers.

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“Please work with these people when they call, they’re just trying to help,” he said. “They’re getting burnt out, and getting yelled at four or five times per day is making it harder.”

People have accused contact tracers of perpetuating a hoax or invading privacy. Briggs said their role is important in identifying outbreaks and helping prevent further spread of the virus.

“These people are working long hours doing a difficult job and are trying to keep the public safe,” he said.

Testing for the virus is also up and nearing capacity to process in a day. The Graham Park collaborative site conducted more than 1,000 tests Monday and Wednesday this week. The percentage of positive cases has nearly doubled as of Monday, to a more than 10% positivity rate, compared to 5.4% a week ago.

Briggs said the collaborative effort can probably process about 1,200 tests per day, but begins to reach capacity at about 1,500 tests per day.

Area health care organizations are also starting to feel strains of the high case counts, Briggs added.

“We’ve got amazing capacity here in Olmsted County,” he said. However, Briggs added that if efforts aren’t taken to slow the spread, even that has its limits.

“We’re at 80, 90% capacity,” he said. “This isn’t something we can keep up — redlining our system.”

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People in their 20s to 40s have been the biggest source of new cases, Briggs said. It appears people are socializing more and aren’t wearing masks or keeping distance from each other when socializing.

The rapid rise in cases started before Halloween and before President Donald Trump held an event at the Rochester International Airport on Oct. 30. Briggs said he expects to see cases to come from people celebrating the holiday and possibly the political event, as well.

“The numbers we’re seeing right now, these were all people who were infected before Halloween, before the rally,” he said.

Adjusting behavior now can help prevent overwhelming health care capacity locally, he added.

“It’s time to buckle down and really think seriously about the decisions you’re making when it comes to gatherings or having friends over,” he said.

If COVID-19 overwhelms health care workers and capacity, it will affect anyone needing help or treatment, Briggs added.

“Once you strain the medical system, it strains everything that people would normally have access to,” he said.

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

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John Molseed joined the Post Bulletin in 2018. He covers arts, culture, entertainment, nature and other fun stories he's surprised he gets paid to cover. When he's not writing articles about Southeast Minnesota artists and musicians, he's either picking banjo, brewing beer, biking or looking for other hobbies that begin with the letter "b." Readers can reach John at 507-285-7713 or jmolseed@postbulletin.com.
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