‘Just assume someone has COVID’: Itasca Co. suspends contact tracing as infections surge

A person wearing a gown and face mask puts a sample in a bag.
Itasca County Public Health workers Becky Tillma (left) hands a COVID-19 nasal swab sample to Julie Purdum (right) on Sept. 23 at a COVID-19 drive-thru testing event at the Itasca County Fairgrounds in Grand Rapids, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News file

By Jerry Burnes and Eric Killelea | Mesabi Tribune

The coronavirus is surging in northeastern Minnesota to the point that Itasca County has suspended individual contact tracing, citing a record high rate of infections through community transmission.

“If you are in a group setting, just assume that someone has COVID,” said Kelly Chandler, department manager for Itasca County Public Health, in a press release.

In shedding contact tracing, public health officials will now focus their efforts on protecting high-risk settings such as schools, long-term care facilities, childcare settings, workplaces, sports teams and places of worship. It's unclear as of Tuesday afternoon what tracing is done by the county and the Minnesota Department of Health.

Chandler said there are both inpatient hospital and ICU bed shortages in Minnesota and residents need to readopt best practices like wearing a mask, keeping 6 feet distance and avoiding large gatherings to keep pressure on the local health care systems.

“We don’t want to use up health care resources needlessly,” Chandler added. “Facilities are, unfortunately, needing to re-implement surge plans from last spring.”

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Itasca County on Tuesday reported a 14-day infection rate of 74.1 per 10,000 residents, blowing by the region’s previous record rate of 51.77 set during a two-week timeframe back in early October and late September. The new record rate accounts for infections between Oct. 25 and Nov. 6.

The Minnesota Department of Health reported an additional 4,906 cases and 23 deaths statewide, bringing cumulative totals to 189,681 infections and 2,698 deaths. Record infection rates have been reported across the state in the last week, prompting Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday to announce new restrictions on bars, restaurants and gatherings. He also convened a special session Thursday to extend his emergency powers by another 30 days.

As of Tuesday, the state Health Department reported 21 new cases in Itasca County and 109 in St. Louis County.

Back in early September, Itasca County (Pop. 43,000) had 225 cases and 13 deaths. The county now has 1,081 cases with 18 deaths. At least 228 people in the county have been hospitalized. In the same time frame, neighboring St. Louis County (Pop. 200,000), had 1,073 cases and 25 deaths. The county now reports 4,532 cases and 77 deaths. About 48 percent of the deaths took place in Duluth, while roughly 52 percent occur in rural parts of the county including cities on the Iron Range.

Contact tracing continues in St. Louis County through MDH. The county on Tuesday reported case exposures to include 35.18 percent, unknown; 19.2 percent, community (no known contact with confirmed case); 18.32, community (known contact with confirmed case); 10.22 percent, congregate living setting (staff or resident); 8.2, travel; 3.77 percent, health care staff; 0.96, corrections, and 0.24, homeless shelter, according to the St. Louis County Dashboard.

At least 17 assisted-living facilities countywide have cases and the rate of community transmission continues to rise.

City governments on the Range have not been reporting individual cases.

Data from the St. Louis County Dashboard shows that the city of Duluth (Pop. 85,884) accounts for the majority of the current cases since mid-March, yet the number of cases have been steadily increasing in the smaller communities of the Range: Hibbing (283), Eveleth (129), Virginia (107), Chisholm (87) and Ely (51).

Meantime, the Bois Forte Health Services on Monday announced two new cases of COVID-19, including an individual in their 30s who lives in Nett Lake and another in their 40s who lives in Vermilion.

Between 500 to 700 of the Bois Forte Band’s 3,500 members live on the reservation, where there are now a total of five active cases, with two in Nett Lake and three in Vermilion. The majority of other members reside in Minneapolis or elsewhere in Minnesota.

Depending where a person who tested positive for the virus lives on the reservation, their cases are reported in either St. Louis or Itasca counties which have been reporting record-setting numbers of cases in recent weeks.

“Rest assured that Bois Forte Health is doing everything in its power to keep the Reservation community safe while also providing support for those who have tested positive for COVID-19,” band officials said in a statement Monday. “Bois Forte Health will maintain regular contact with the isolated individuals and will monitor their compliance with isolation instructions.”

The band is coordinating efforts with the Minnesota Health Department to “ensure a robust and thorough public health response.”

Since the beginning of the year, at least 30 people have recovered from contracting the virus on the reservation.

The Bois Forte Band is among several tribal nations in Minnesota which have reported positive cases of the coronavirus. As of Tuesday, the federal Indian Health Services reported that 4,390 people tested positive for COVID-19 in the Bemidji area.

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.