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Olmsted County, home of Mayo Clinic, leads Minnesota in new COVID-19 cases

Health officials say that declining hospitalizations is a better metric for tracking spread.

Mayo Clinic
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ROCHESTER, Minn. — It's a confusing turn of events.

Olmsted County, home of the Rochester-based Mayo Clinic and at 84.8%, the second-most vaccinated county in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, currently has the highest rate of new COVID-19 cases in the state of Minnesota.

To be sure, the numbers in question don't begin to approach the soaring case counts of just a few months ago. Back then, during the omicron peak in early January, the state was averaging 246 new cases per 100,000 residents daily.

As of Tuesday, April 5, Olmsted leads the state on that metric, but with just 21.8 cases per 100,000 residents daily, according to the Mayo Clinic list of statewide hot spots. That works out to 33 new cases a day, according to Mayo, or roughly 220-230 cases per week, according to county health officials.

Mayo's COVID-19 modeling project predicts Olmsted's 21.8 daily cases per 100,000 people could reach 32.4 by April 19, a prediction that falls within a wide range spanning from 17 to 79. Mayo's Dr. Curtis Storlie, the director of that project, believes the trend for Olmsted is likely to go down, not up.

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"It isn’t entirely surprising that Olmsted would lead the state in detected cases per capita right now," Storlie said in an email, "because Olmsted’s rise lagged the metro and thus the decline lags a bit as well."

According to the most recent figures available from the Minnesota Department of Health, Olmsted's average weekly case rate is currently the highest in the state . For the week of March 20, MDH reports, Olmsted posted 15.5 cases per 10,000 residents, followed by Faribault County on the Iowa border at 12.2. The statewide average is just 4.9.

"As far as case counts are concerned for that period, Wilkin County in the northwest of the state had the highest case rate the week of March 13," Garry Bowman of the Minnesota Department of Health wrote in an email reflecting March 13 data. At that time, the 6,000-person border region just south of Moorhead had recorded over 14 cases per capita, but it has now fallen to 1.6.

"At this point, the increase in Olmsted could be fluctuations in stable caseloads or the beginning of an increase — it’s too early to say," Bowman said. "We are closely monitoring cases statewide for any increases and we will keep watching in case it does turn into something."

Olmsted is new to state-topping case counts

Leading the state when it comes to COVID-19 is novel territory for Olmsted, which has a population of over 162,000 according to the 2020 census. According to MDH, dozens of counties hold a higher cumulative case and test positivity rate.

"I think there's a couple of things going on here," said Meaghan Sherden, manager for the epidemiology team at Olmsted County Public Health.

MeaghanSherden.jpg
Meagan Sherden is manager of the epidemiology team at Olmsted County Public Health.
Contributed / Nick Ryan

"We do currently have one of the higher per-capita rates ... I think this goes back to we continue to still test at a very high rate, understanding that if you are testing for COVID, you are going to find it more often."

With 6.7% of its COVID-19 tests coming back positive, Olmsted currently owns the state's highest test positivity weekly rate , according to MDH. It's more than double the 2.7% rate now recorded statewide, and makes Olmsted the only county currently surpassing the state's 5% threshold of caution .

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According to historical data within MDH, in Olmsted the cumulative test rate is 33,882 per capita , putting it squarely in the middle of the pack for testing.

"According to our epidemiology staff, if testing was the primary driver of case counts, we would expect to see lower positivity," Bowman said. "The positivity rate for Olmsted County was the highest in Minnesota for the week of March 13."

Sherden said the focus within Olmsted has increasingly shifted toward other methods of tracking spread, such as wastewater and hospitalizations.

"Even though we've seen an increase in cases over the last two weeks, our hospitalizations have not increased and we've actually seen a little bit of a decrease in our admissions," she said. "In the grand scheme of things, that's the positive trend that we want to focus on."

Paul John Scott is the health correspondent for NewsMD and the Forum News Service. He is a novelist and was an award winning magazine journalist for 15 years prior to joining the FNS in 2019.
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