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COVID positivity rate reaches all-time high in Beltrami County

The week of Jan. 13 Beltrami county recorded 558 new cases of COVID-19 in the last 14 days, but Megan Heuer, the county’s Public Health director, says the number of cases in the community is likely even higher.

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BEMIDJI — New positive case counts for the coronavirus have passed 500 in the last two weeks according to local health officials.

The week of Jan. 13 Beltrami county recorded 558 new cases of COVID-19 in the last 14 days, but Megan Heuer, the county’s Public Health director, says the number of cases in the community is likely even higher.

“We know that our local positivity rate is significantly higher than it has been in the past several months,” Heuer said. “We also know that many people are using at-home tests, which do not get reported in our state numbers.”

This means that the reported numbers might be deceptively low, and Heuer cautioned that the situation in Beltrami county during this latest surge of the coronavirus is likely worse than the numbers imply.

These sentiments were echoed by Dr. David Wilcox, chief medical officer at Sanford Health in Bemidji, who has seen record-high positivity rates in testing over the past week and said the community may have more cases to go before reaching the peak of this most recent surge.

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“This week we hit an all-time high over all the pandemic of 32% of our tests being positive for COVID,” Wilcox said. “For comparison, Sanford as a whole, which is all of our regions, is at a 41.1% positivity rate, so that might imply that we have more cases to go during this surge.”

As of Jan. 20, there had been 9,594 total cases in Beltrami County and 112 deaths since the pandemic began. According to data from the Minnesota Department of Health , as of Jan. 18, 25,581 Beltrami County residents were fully vaccinated.

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Data from the Minnesota Department of Health shows vaccination numbers from Beltrami County as of Jan. 18, 2022.
Courtesy / Minnesota Department of Health

Both Heuer and Wilcox stressed the importance of taking protective measures, particularly through vaccines and boosters.

“The severity of COVID is disproportionately affecting patients who are unvaccinated,” Wilcox explained. “Over 80% of the people in the hospital are not vaccinated, and we have no one (currently in the greater Sanford system) in the hospital, ICU or ventilator that has been vaccinated and boosted.”

Wilcox emphasized the effectiveness of the vaccines against the current Omicron variant and noted that those vaccinated and boosted have a 65% lower chance of getting sick at all.

Education impacts

Wilcox also stressed the increasing importance of vaccinating eligible children.

“I think the other thing we need to push forward with is that this is affecting children,” Wilcox said, noting that the hospitalization of children in Minnesota has tripled in the last month. “We’ve had moms, babies, little kids, teenagers, all ages of children hospitalized.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, 29% of children ages 5 to 11 have been fully vaccinated in Minnesota, but Beltrami county lags behind.

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“Our local vaccine rates for 5 to 11 is in the 20% range,” Wilcox said. “Some of our surrounding counties are as low as 5 to 10%, so we really need to vaccinate that younger crowd.”

According to MDH, the Bemidji school district reports 16% of children ages 5 to 11 have been fully vaccinated, and 42% of those ages 12 to 18.

Following an emergency COVID closure day for Tuesday, Jan. 18, the district came to the decision to extend the closure due to a large number of COVID cases and other illnesses affecting staffing levels across the district.

Meanwhile, a petition was started on Change.org earlier in the week calling for Bemidji State University to go virtual in the midst of high case numbers around the community.

According to data from Minnesota State, as of Dec. 1, 2021, the percent of fall 2021 enrolled students with one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine was 67% for BSU and 54% for Northwest Technical College.

Continued safety precautions

In addition to vaccines, Wilcox pressed the importance of other safety measures, such as masking and limiting contact with those who are outside of your immediate circles.

“This continues to be an illness that spreads most intensely in households and by the basic choices you make. The broader you spread your social network, the more likely you are to come in contact and get COVID, especially if you’re not vaccinated,” said Wilcox. “Then the likelihood is that you’ll bring it home and it’ll spread within the household.”

As numbers continue to rise, following CDC guidelines and recommendations remain vital, whether those relate to protective measures like masking and social distancing or isolation following a positive test result.

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“This is a preventable illness, the seriousness of being hospitalized, being put on a ventilator, even dying of COVID is very highly preventable by vaccination, and vaccinating all ages that are eligible is important,” Wilcox emphasized. “We appreciate those moving forward doing the preventative measures because we know that’s one less person in the hospital.”

Nicole Ronchetti is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on local government and community health.
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