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The now month-long surge in COVID-19 infections among Morrison County residents reached a new high again last week.

“Our numbers of COVID are skyrocketing in the last week,” said Morrison County Public Health Nursing Supervisor Cindy Nienaber, in a report to the Board of Commissioners, Tuesday. “We are now at an average of 25 cases a day in Morrison County. As recently as a month ago, we were under 10 cases a day, so that’s very concerning.”

By Thursday, that average number of cases per day had grown to 34.

Between Oct. 1 - 7, there were 236 new cases of COVID-19 reported in Morrison County. That included a rise in positivity rate from 13.09% on Sept. 30, to 17.21% one week later.

As of Thursday, there were 354 total active cases within the county, 119 more than on Sept. 30.

The most troubling number, however, was the number of infections being found among children, ages 5 - 18. At this time last year, Nienaber said about 21 cases out of the 14-day case rate were found in kids. On Tuesday, 86 cases were in school-aged children.

“We know that our spread among those unvaccinated students is very, very high,” Nienaber said. “We are reporting that to the schools twice a week. We’re actually breaking it down for them by ZIP code so they know where it’s at and which buildings.”

The highest concentration of students with COVID-19 were found in Little Falls and in Royalton. According to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), active cases were found in Little Falls Community Middle School, Little Falls Community High School, Royalton Elementary and Royalton Middle School during the past week. That is an increase from only one school with a known case, Sept. 30.

“That doesn’t mean that it’s not in the other buildings,” Nienaber said. “We could have large numbers of kids that are just not getting tested, which would be my suspicion.”

Nienaber said a “vast majority” of the children who are testing positive for COVID-19 are not running high temperatures. Still, she said most were showing other symptoms. It is unknown how many kids may have recently had the virus and been asymptomatic, as they are likely not getting tested.

She said MDH has been urging schools to do some form of testing, but that has received a great deal of pushback from parents throughout the state. She speculated that is mainly because they do not want their children to have to quarantine. All schools do have access to free tests, but many are still not offering them due to a lack of “buy-in” from parents and guardians.

“It’s not so much the buy-in,” said Commissioner Randy Winscher. “A lot of these kids get influenza and, based on what I hear, that’s more deadly to kids than the COVID is, but yet they don’t test for influenza.”

“Typically, if you’re getting a COVID test, you’re also getting an influenza test,” Nienaber said.

“They are doing that for the most part, because when COVID rolled out, that was part of the protocol; that we were testing for COVID and influenza to make sure what we had,” she continued. “That’s still pretty routine. Most people that get a COVID test are also being tested for influenza.”

She said the county has also been in the midst of a “high surge” of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) among children since June. That can also be dangerous, she said, but it is unknown why that has continued to spread.

She added that while COVID-19 might not be as dangerous for most kids as it is for adults, that is not the case for vulnerable children, such as those with asthma or other underlying health conditions.

“We have had a couple in Morrison County that have been hospitalized,” Nienaber said. “They’re not exempt from serious illness.”

In all, Morrison County has had 279 people hospitalized from COVID-19. Three of those people were admitted between Oct. 1 - 7.

Commissioner Greg Blaine commented about how, during the COVID-19 surge Minnesota experienced in fall 2020, public schools kept students at home for distance learning. He said he was “taken aback” that the districts took action a year ago when the infection numbers among children were considerably lower than they are this year.

“Now, when we have a spike like this and numbers that we’ve never seen before in the non-adult population, that there seems to be no action from the schools on this,” Blaine said. “Do you have any explanation for that?”

Nienaber explained that both MDH and the Minnesota Department of Education had strict rules in place for 2020 regarding when schools had to transition to distance learning. There also was a statewide mask mandate in place.

She said both of those helped control the spread among children, as well as adults.

“We could debate masks all day, but I promise you that this is a respiratory illness and masks do help,” Nienaber said. “They don’t completely prevent it, but they do help reduce the numbers. There is not a school in Morrison County right now that has a mask mandate. Masks are voluntary; they are encouraged.”

She said factors such as the presence of the Delta variant — which spreads more rapidly than the initial strain of COVID-19 — along with the lack of action taken by local school districts have played a role in the increased spread.

Masking, vaccinations among eligible students and social distancing guidelines, she said, would all help. About 24% of the children age 12 - 18 in Morrison County have been vaccinated.

“For the most part, parents and families have greatly protested masks, and that’s why we don’t have any mask mandates in Morrison County,” she said.

She described it as a “multi-factoral” problem.

According to data from Morrison County Public Health, of the 354 active cases on Thursday, 152 were in people located within the Little Falls ZIP code. There were 43 in Royalton, 33 in Pierz, 27 in Swanville, 24 in Randall, 20 in Hillman, 18 in Motley, 12 in Cushing and 11 in Bowlus.

Along with the four schools, MDH also listed three long-term care facilities within Morrison County that have known infections. Little Falls Health Services Care Center and St. Otto’s Care Center remained on the list, while Meadow Pond Assisted Living was added during the past week.

According to MDH, Morrison County continued to rank 81st out of the 87 counties in Minnesota as far as vaccination rate.

“I guess it would be fair to say that if there’s no action taken for any of these preventative measures, either an increase in the vaccination rate or masking or social distancing — distance learning and that — it’s fair to say that we’ll see these numbers continue into the future here,” Blaine said. “It almost appears to me that the powers that be will let this virus run its course.”

“That seems to be what’s happening,” Nienaber said. “I guess we’ll wait and see.”

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