by Joni Astrup

Associate Editor

Nine Sherburne County employees have been undergoing training to do COVID-19 case investigation and contact tracing, as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

The process involves, in part, interviewing people who have tested positive for COVID-19 and identifying the people with whom they have had contact to prevent spread of the disease.

In an update to the Sherburne County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, Amanda Larson with Sherburne County Health and Human Services said it’s a seven-day-a-week endeavor, with shifts from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and noon to 8:30 p.m. Eight nurses and one planner have been going through training to do the work, which got underway Monday.

As of Tuesday, Larson said Sherburne County had 160 lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19. Of those, 123 were in some form of isolation, 37 were off isolation, 17 were hospitalized with five in intensive care and one had died.

A second death proved to be incorrectly identified with Sherburne County. Larson said that person was a resident of a long-term-care facility in another county who had a Sherburne County address linked to them that actually belonged to family member.

Four children were added to the list of Sherburne County cases in recent days, including two 1-year-olds. In response to a question from Commissioner Raeanne Danielowski, Larson said she didn’t know if those children were showing symptoms.

Sherburne County Board Chair Felix Schmiesing said as COVID-19 testing continues to ramp up, case investigation and contact tracing will become a large task.

“This is going to be a big deal for us,” he said. “It’s going to be expensive, it’s going to be difficult, it’s going to be taxing to staff to get this done as best they can and we may not be able to accomplish what is being asked of us.”

Larson estimates that the nine Sherburne County employees now trained for case investigation and contact tracing could handle as many as 81 COVID-19 cases a day. “Right now, our folks don’t necessarily need to do this 40 hours a week. They can kind of weave it into their existing duties,” Larson said. The county also has plans for addional staff to be diverted to the work if necessary.

County Administrator Bruce Messelt said 10 staff people assigned to the task would cost about $1 million a year. The county hopes to get funding for such coronavirus-related costs from money made available through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

“Clearly, the county’s expenditures, if this becomes long-term, are going to be in the millions of dollars,” Messelt said.

The county gets a daily listing of local COVID-19 cases from the state and is being asked to interview those who have tested positive within 24 hours. Larson said that had not necessarily been happening because of the volume of cases. As of Tuesday, she estimated that as many as half of Sherburne County’s 160 cases still needed to be contacted.

A recent MPR News story indicated that state health department officials said they were short-staffed and it was taking several days to launch case investigations once they learn of a positive test result. County health officials had concern about the delays.

“It really is a measure that needs to be expedited,” Larson told the County Board. “So by us taking on the contact tracing, we’re hopeful that we really can fill that 24-hour window to at least help with some of that.”

Other COVID-19 related updates, according to Larson and other county staff:

•Modeling shows that cases will peak on June 29 in Minnesota; projections indicate that 88% of all Minnesotans could get COVID-19. Regarding modeling, Larson said, “It’s as good as it is until it changes again.”

•The Minnesota Department of Health has sought legislative approval for 4,200 contact tracers to work 12 to 18 months. MDH has also redeployed 200 staff members and engaged local public health to provide another 500 people for the task.

•Guardian Angels Care Center Elk River has been added to the list of long-term-care facilities in Sherburne County with COVID-19 exposure. The others are CentraCare St. Benedict’s Community, Elk River Senior Care LLC, Nature’s Point Assisted Living, St. Scholastica Convent and The Sanctuary at St. Cloud. Exposure is defined by the Minnesota Department of Health as a person diagnosed with COVID-19 who either visited, worked or lived at a congregate care facility while they were contagious. MDH says the list is cumulative and facilities may not have ongoing transmission.

•Employees and visitors to the Sherburne County Government Center, located at 13880 Business Center Drive in Elk River, are not required to wear face masks but are strongly encouraged to do so.

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