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COVID numbers hit new high in Hubbard County region

The omicron variant is here, and likely behind the sharp increases in positivity rates, according to Dr. David Wilcox, chief medical officer to the Bemidji-based Sanford Health, which includes Park Rapids.

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Dr. Wilcox
Contributed / Sanford Health

The latest report of weekly COVID-19 stats shows that from Jan. 12-18 the Bemidji region saw a positivity rate of 32.2% – a new high for the region which includes locations in Koochiching, Itasca, Cass, Hubbard, Clearwater, Polk, Beltrami and Lake of the Woods counties. The previous week the positivity rate was 27.1%.

The Jan. 5 CHI St. Joseph Community Health update on COVID-19 showed a seven-day positivity rate of 12.73% in Hubbard County from Dec. 29 through Jan. 4 . A week later, on Jan. 13, the seven-day positivity rate had jumped to 25.32%. The most recent report shows a positivity rate of 27.23%. These numbers do not reflect any additional positive home tests in the community as those are not reportable. A positivity rate of 5 % or higher is considered concerning. Community Health offers walk-in COVID vaccines and boosters for ages 5 and up every Tuesday from 9am-11am at their office in Park Rapids

Wilcox said the jump in positivity cases in this region is most likely due to omicron.

“The state does routine surveillance for the presence of variants and for weeks has been finding omicron around the state. This pattern of rapid acceleration of positivity rates is consistent with how omicron has intruded in every environment, from the larger cities to the more rural area. And due to home tests not being reported to MDH, the case numbers in communities are probably being underreported.”

He said Sanford has seen a similar jump. “Our positivity rate a few weeks ago was 16%, and the tests that we do at Sanford suddenly jumped to 26% the following week,” he said.

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COVID in children

Wilcox said that this increase affects everyone, including some children needing hospitalization.

“We had a four-month-old who needed to be hospitalized as well as a number of pregnant women,” he said.

He said it is important for parents to get their child tested if they show symptoms that may indicate COVID.

“That’s really the only way we can tell COVID from other respiratory illnesses, like RSV and influenza,” he said. “A lack of oxygen can become a problem with all of these respiratory illnesses. If the child is having difficulty breathing, not eating or drinking or participating in their usual activities, they should be seen by a doctor.”

He said data for Hubbard County on the Minnesota Department of Health website, as of Jan. 17 shows only 10% of children ages 5-11 are vaccinated. “That’s quite low,” he said.

In comparison, 34% of 12-17 are vaccinated and 43% of 18- to 49-year-olds.

The total vaccination rate in Hubbard County is 57%.”

Advice to help prevent the spread

Wilcox said COVID is most often spread by household members or coworkers due to the amount of time spent around them.

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“The recommendations made by the CDC and public health departments to mask in public places are appropriate,” he said. “Also, the recommendation to stay home for five days and mask for 10 days, if proven to have COVID, and stay home for five days if you’ve been exposed and haven’t been vaccinated, are all sound, evidence-based recommendations for preventing the spread of COVID-19.

“The amount of severe illness, hospitalizations and ICU care is predominantly affecting the unvaccinated. Upwards of 85% to 90% of hospitalizations and serious illnesses are amongst the unvaccinated, so they are disproportionately affected compared to those who are fully vaccinated.”

He said for the past several weeks daily hospitalizations for COVID have hovered around 10 people at Sanford. “That’s down from our prior experience, but with these cases suddenly accelerating, I’m not sure we’ve seen the full impact of omicron with hospitalization rates in our region.”

Wilcox said masking is source control.

“You may not have symptoms, but you could still be spreading it to others and the mask helps with that. It helps both the person wearing it and the people they are around.

“There’s no doubt that COVID-19 is affecting other patients. Available beds and staffing are both issues. Over the last couple of months there have been people waiting extraordinarily long times in emergency rooms. Some elective surgeries have been canceled.

“It’s really important for everyone that we keep this disease from spreading. The most important thing is for everyone to get vaccinated because that clearly reduces hospitalizations and serious illness and keeps people from having to come in.”

A more contagious variant

Wilcox said the symptoms of omicron are similar to previous COVID strains.

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“There are a variety of symptoms on the CDC website,” he said. “They vary from person to person, but the natural history of a virus is to become more contagious and slightly less dangerous. What that might mean is if the original virus had a 2% hospitalization rate. That means if 100 people were ill, two would end up in the hospital. If the next variation was more contagious and made 200 people sick but was also less severe, so only 1% were hospitalized, there would still be 2 people ending up in the hospital.

“Each variant that has been of concern has doubled in infection rate. For the original COVID virus, if there was one person with COVID-19, they would infect 1-2 other people. With delta, for every case present they would infect 4-6 more. With omicron, every case results in approximately 12-15 more individuals getting omicron. That’s why it so rapidly displaces the variant we were previously dealing with.”

N95 masks are best

Wilcox said cases of both RSV and influenza are being seen in the region as well as COVID, with patient hospitalizations for all three.

“Last year, we had no one admitted with the flu,” he said. “Last year, the entire Sanford system only had one patient admitted with the flu. This year, we’ve already seen 20 patients admitted for the flu. The implications of mandatory masking and having people separated reduces all disease. We saw the impact of that last year, and now with less compliance and less mandates we’re seeing more infectious disease altogether.”

According to the latest guidance from the CDC, an N95 mask offers the highest level of protection.

“Masking is a continuum of protection,” he said. “A thin, one-layer mask doesn’t do much. A multi-layer cotton mask does more. A surgical mask does even more. A KN95 is next, and an N95 is the highest level of protection. Using masks reduces spread in the community. The data is clear.”

Lorie Skarpness has lived in the Park Rapids area since 1997 and has been writing for the Park Rapids Enterprise since 2017. She enjoys writing features about the people and wildlife who call the north woods home.
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