WASECA — After a step in the right direction last week, the region’s COVID-19 metrics appeared to lurch upward again this week.
South-central Minnesota’s positive test rate, measuring the percent of tests resulting in positive cases, was on the decline from about mid-August until last week, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Health. Case growth also seemed to come to a stall last week.
New data released this week showed a far uglier picture, with new cases, positivity rates or hospitalizations up nearly across the board in the nine-county region.
Waseca County’s recent COVID-19 hospitalization rates, for example, are comparable to its previous worst stretch during the pandemic, said Sarah Berry, county public health director.
“We know that our COVID-19 case rates are similar to what we saw over the middle of the winter last year from November to January, but our hospitalization rates are much higher,” she said. “In the month of August, we had a very high hospitalization rate and the numbers for our (intensive care units) were nearly double that of the highest month previously, which would’ve been back in November 2020.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracking data showed Waseca County’s rate of new COVID-19 hospital admissions and the percent of hospital bed use spiked in August and September. A similar rise is ongoing in Blue Earth County.
Blue Earth County’s CDC data from this week showed new COVID-19 hospital admissions, the percent of hospital beds in use and the percent of ICU beds in use were all at or near what they were in late 2020.
State health data on breakthrough COVID-19 cases after vaccinations indicates the vast majority of hospitalizations are occurring in unvaccinated residents. The more contagious delta variant appears more likely to make unvaccinated people, including children who aren’t eligible for vaccines, sicker than strains circulating earlier in the pandemic.
Waseca County’s high case and hospitalization counts in recent weeks prompted Sacred Heart School to scale back its mostly outdoors Fall Festival, set for Friday to Sunday. The school canceled events planned for children, including a carnival, movie night and book fair.
Events planned for older age groups are still on, from a fish fry and live auction on Friday to bingo on Saturday to a drawing on Sunday. Principal LeAnn Dahle wrote in a school district email that the school made the cancellations after discussions with Waseca County Public Health.
“I understand this is a great disappointment for families and children,” Dahle wrote. “However, it is important that we make decisions that will help us continue in-person learning another school year.”
Waseca County’s test positivity rate was 18.9% in the CDC’s latest numbers updated between Sept. 6-12 — 5% or lower is considered encouraging. Weekly state health department test and case numbers between Sept. 9-15 showed about a 14.6% positivity rate in the county, although there may be an undercounting of tests regionwide leading to slightly elevated rates.
Between the CDC and state numbers showing such high rates during overlapping time periods, a worsening of the region’s COVID-19 situation in recent days seems clear, said Derek J. Wingert, a local data analyst with the COVID Tracking Project.
“These are numbers that should raise concerns for pretty much everyone regardless of vaccine status,” he said.
Seven of the nine area counties had worse positivity rates in this week’s CDC numbers compared to the prior week, while all nine had worse rates in the state data. Blue Earth County’s positivity rate was about 9.9% in the state data compared to 9.2% in the CDC data.
Even factoring in possible lags in reported tests in the state data, Wingert said, this week’s turn for the worse was a bit of a shock. The weeks leading up to it generally had gradual improvements with signs of a possible peak in new case growth.
“It’s still a pretty obvious, significant and widespread increase in positivity to go with the case increase,” he said. “So really not what we want to see.”
As always, another week of data should offer a better indication of whether this week’s ugliness was more of an outlier or the beginning of another wave.
Mitigation efforts such as masking, getting vaccinated, staying home when sick and social distancing can all help limit COVID-19 spread, Berry said. Social distancing, masking, staying home when sick and hand washing are also helpful in limiting other spreadable illnesses like respiratory syncytial virus, also known as RSV, and influenza.
Adding COVID-19 on top of other illnesses could heap further strain on hospital systems as the region enters a fall with fewer enforced mitigation strategies in place. The more COVID-19 hospitalizations that can be avoided through vaccinations or other mitigation strategies, the more room there is for other needs.
“With our young children who aren’t able to be vaccinated, we want to protect them the best way we can,” Berry said. “One of the best ways to protect them is to be vaccinated ourselves.”