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Home for the holiday: Beltrami County tracking 228 active COVID-19 cases with 34 hospitalized

As of Tuesday, there are 34 people in the hospital in Bemidji, 14 of which are from Beltrami County with the rest being from other surrounding counties.

Kerigan Dowhy helps a fellow student register for the free COVID-19 saliva testing event held for BSU and NTC students on Tuesday at the Gillett Wellness Center. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- As we head into the Thanksgiving season, many health care providers are strongly encouraging people to rethink their holiday plans.

“This is not the year for over the river and through the woods,” Beltrami County Public Health Director Cynthia Borgen said. “This is the year for hunkering down at home and having a small celebration just with your family. We just need to look at things differently.”

According to Borgen, her department is currently monitoring 228 active coronavirus cases, with the Minnesota Department of Health listing 1,584 cases in the county overall since the pandemic began.

“We don’t have as many active cases now as we had last week, so that’s a good thing,” Borgen said. “But that often ticks up as we get into the workweek.”

“Last week we were up in the 280s for active cases for a few days,” she said. “Sometimes there gets to be a little bit of a testing backlog, so there might be some days where we show a large number of cases on a certain day and then we’ll have fewer for a bit.”


She explained rather than looking at those spikes -- since that’s likely more related to the testing backlog -- they try to look at the seven-day average to gauge how the community is looking.

“One day we had a number of 86 new cases, and then a week before that we had a day where only four cases came through,” she said.

Right now they are seeing an average of around 45 new cases per day in Beltrami County.

“It all depends on the day the lab gets caught up,” Borgen explained. “Because the labs are stressed. If a machine goes down they quickly get backlogged, and then once that machine is up and running again they run a lot more tests and then we get a number like that 86.”

Testing options

Free at-home saliva tests are now available for Minnesota residents through the state health department, and many are using it as a way to find out if they are sick before heading home for the holidays.

“Certainly if you’re going to be traveling you want the best indication that you’re not bringing COVID with you,” she said. “But that is just a point in time, and unless you take the test and then you really hunker down and stay removed from other people until you get your results, you may still have contracted COVID at some point along the way afterward.”

She explained that college students who are heading home are especially being encouraged to take these tests because if they are positive it can help prevent further spread from happening around other areas.

“With the level of community transmission we have going on in Beltrami County and around the state, and even worse in North and South Dakota and Wisconsin, you really just need to assume that everyone you’re hanging out with might have COVID,” Borgen said.


On Tuesday, Bemidji State held a free saliva testing event for students to help them gauge what to do for the holidays. Tables were spaced out across the Gillett Wellness Center for the event, as a steady flow of students filed in to register.

“It’s a great partnership between BSU and the state to make that happen, so the kids are better informed as they decide if they should head home,” Borgen said.

Bemidji State employee Lisa Jones helps a student register for the free COVID-19 saliva testing event for BSU and NTC students on Tuesday at the Gillett Wellness Center. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

She explained that the saliva tests and the PCR nasal swab tests have proven to be very accurate for detecting COVID-19 even in those who are asymptomatic. While the rapid tests used some places are more accurate when symptoms are present, but less so with asymptomatic cases.

“It’s all about the disease epidemiology, as your body develops antibodies to fight the disease, there just might not be enough of that virus that’s showing up in your body yet,” she explained. “The virus comes into your body and it replicates over and over, and it has to get to a certain point where those tests can pick up that virtual activity in your body.”

Current concerns

According to Borgen, the main thing they are seeing right now is household spread, where people contract COVID-19 and then go home and expose their family members or housemates without realizing they were sick.

“We are still seeing that age group of 19-24 as a group where we’re having a hard time getting a handle on it,” she said. “That is one of the reasons why the governor targeted closing establishments down at 10 o’clock to try and reduce the spread among the young adults there.”


She mentioned another situation of mild concern are the gatherings taking place during hunting season.

“If you’ve got a bunch of deer hunters gathering in a small space and not being careful, that has the potential for spread,” she said. “Especially if you’ve got people coming from different areas.”

She stressed that though it is exciting there is a vaccine coming, the availability for the public is still around six months out.

“We really need people to hunker down and keep practicing those COVID safety strategies of wearing masks and staying socially distant, avoiding large crowds and taking care of hand hygiene,” she said. “Staying home when you're sick has become even more important now that people are indoors and we’re heading into winter. We really need people, if they are sick at all, to stay home and not risk exposing other people while they wait to find out if they might have COVID.”

Bemidji State hosted a free COVID-19 saliva testing event for BSU and NTC students on Tuesday at the Gillett Wellness Center. The Minnesota Department of Health said that it’s likely most students have been exposed to COVID-19 at some point in the past month. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

A look at the numbers

Though to some it may seem like the numbers aren’t changing much, or they are just going up as more testing becomes available, according to Borgen: it’s a mix of both.

“We certainly are identifying a lot more of the positive cases as testing expands, but there also are a lot more positive cases,” she said. “One of the ways we figure that out is by looking at the positivity rate, by looking at the number of people tested and then the percent of those that are positive.”


For the last several months, Borgen said they were averaging less than a 5% positivity rate, then around the middle of October, it began averaging around 10% and now the number is hovering at 17.4%.

“With everything we’ve learned recently about vaccines on the horizon, it’s the hope that in a few weeks those are going to be available to health care workers,” she said. “And then we’ll start getting top priority people vaccinated who are working with high-risk individuals, health care personnel and first responders, and then maybe like six months out it’ll be available to the general public. That is hopefully when we can start to relax some of these restrictions.”

She emphasized that in order to keep everyone safe up until then, it is important to practice the set COVID safety precautions.

“If we can just hang out for just six more months, I think we can get there,” she said. “Our health care systems are stressed, we have a lot of people in the hospital right now across the country and we just can’t afford for people to let up and be careless and put more people in the hospital.”

As of Tuesday, there are 34 people in the hospital in Bemidji, 14 of which are from Beltrami County with the rest being from other surrounding counties.

“We need to make different choices and do what we can to reduce this level of community transmission,” she said. “That might mean I’m going to order my food from a restaurant and just pick it up and eat at home. I’m going to pick up my groceries curb-side rather than going shopping, or I’m going to have Thanksgiving with just my immediate family and we’re going to make a video call to grandma rather than going for a visit.

“We all need to make those kinds of individual choices to get this kind of community transmission down so we can keep our kids in school and keep the economy operating.”

The public is also reminded to not put off seeking routine care, especially as we head into flu season.


“If people put things off and all of a sudden you’re in a crisis, that’s the type of care that really is stretched right now is the critical care,” she explained. “So if people can take care of their routine health needs, that’s what we’d really like to see people doing.”

Borgen reiterated that if someone thinks they may be sick they should call their primary care provider or the main line at the Sanford Bemidji Medical Center, (218) 333-5000, and they can talk through their symptoms and staff will explain how to utilize the drive through testing sites.

For general COVID-19 questions, the Minnesota Department of Health has a variety of resources available on their website along with a general helpline.

Annalise is the editor and a photographer at the Bemidji Pioneer. She is a Mass Communication graduate from Bemidji State University. Her favorite pastime is exploring the great outdoors and capturing its natural beauty on camera. Contact Annalise at (218) 333-9796, (218) 358-1990 or abraught@bemidjipioneer.com.
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