Itasca County has seen a continued rise in cases of COVID over the past week and, unfortunately, an additional COVID-related death, a male in his 80s.
Newly diagnosed cases of COVID-19 rose by 114 between April 9 and 15, a rate of increase not seen since late fall 2020. The 14-day case rate per 10,000 Itasca residents is up to 48 from 42 in just one week. Cases are highest among 30- and 40-year-olds and school-aged children.
“I know we are all tired of the pandemic and talking about COVID, but we do ask that you continue to stay six feet apart and wear your masks. We know this works to prevent spread of COVID, particularly to those most vulnerable or who will not simply have mild symptoms,” said Kelly Chandler, Itasca County Public Health division manager. “COVID has not let up and we need to stay strong, especially to protect those who are unvaccinated or are more likely to experience poor outcomes.”
Among those impacted by rising local rates of COVID are area schools, explained several leaders.
Northern Lights Community School in Warba recently brought students back to in-person learning for the first time since March 2020. More than 80 percent of school staff are vaccinated and spread of COVID has been prevented so far by precautions taken by students and staff in the school. “As long as people play by the rules, we’re going to finish this year on a good and healthy note,” said Mike Hammernick, Northern Lights director.
Greenway Schools have been back in-person since Feb. 8 and staff and students are determined to make sure it stays that way, said Superintendent David Pace. “I want to congratulate our students and staff for their persistence,” said Pace. “We have a short time left in the school year and we want to be successful.”
As have most schools, the rise in COVID-19 cases in the county has contributed to a very recent flurry of quarantines at Greenway. Ten days ago, 120 students were out on quarantine due to close contact exposure to COVID, down to 30 still quarantined this week. No new quarantines were needed at Greenway this week.
Deer River also had a flurry of cases and quarantines following the short spring break in early April. Fifty elementary students were quarantined due to close contact since April 6, involving at least four cases among students. Symptoms among young students have been sneezing, fever and nausea. Deer River high school saw no new cases of COVID this week, but 15 students were quarantined due to close contacts on school buses. Twenty staff experienced close contact outside of school and were quarantined and four positive cases were identified among staff.
“We are still optimistic that we can have some version of a normal end to the year,” said Dr. Jeff Pesta. “Our students have begun to be vaccinated and we are continuing with our planning for concerts, prom and graduation.”
“We continue to hear from families that they are grateful we’ve been able to prioritize in-person learning,” said Grand Rapids and Bigfork Superintendent Matt Grose. “We also are hearing frustration around quarantines and wearing masks. We get it. There’s a tradeoff for being in-person, including tighter restrictions.
“We continue to plan for an in-person prom and graduation, neither of which were possible a year ago. We need our communities, in these last weeks of school, to partner with us, buckle down, finish strong, enable us to finish the rest of the year in school. And that means keeping kids home when they are sick, masking up, keeping distance and washing hands.”
One of the county’s bright spots is the rising percentage of those being vaccinated. “Our eligible population for vaccinations in Itasca is anyone ages 16 and up,” said Chandler. “For this group, we are at 47% of our residents who have at least their first dose, with over half completing their series. We encourage anyone 16 and up to seek out a vaccination at our pharmacies, hospitals or public health.”
Itasca County Public Health will host a Saturday vaccine clinic at the IRA Civic Center in Grand Rapids on April 24 from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Pre-registration will secure your dose, although if enough vaccine is available walk-ins may be served. The link for online registration can be found at the county’s website (https://www.co.itasca.mn.us/).
Vaccinations have or will be offered within area high schools for 16 to 18-year-old youth, offered by are area hospitals which have Pfizer vaccines available. For parents who are still interested but may have missed the opportunity for their child to be vaccinated, please call Grand Itasca, Essentia Health or Thrifty White Pharmacy, all of whom have Pfizer.
Pfizer, the only vaccine authorized for those ages 16 and 17, submitted its application for emergency use authorization this week for those 12 to 15. The application is making its way through the national approval process and decisions should occur within the next few weeks.
“We are excited by the option of vaccination for this younger age group, especially with the B117 UK variant in Itasca County and linked to spread amongst youth and their parents,” said Chandler. “We are in a race to get vaccines out before more spread occurs.
“What does it mean when youth are fully vaccinated? They will not have to quarantine for close exposures, will not have to miss in-person learning, athletic events, band and choir concerts, proms, graduations. We know this will be for at least six months post-vaccination, up from 90 days and the research on length of time vaccines are effective continues to be conducted and very likely will lengthen beyond six months. We know the vaccines are effective in preventing severe illness and hospitalization.”
Vaccine supplies in Itasca County have been slightly disrupted by this week’s pause on vaccination using the Johnson & Johnson product.
“This pause shows the robustness of the U.S. surveillance and safety system,” said Chandler. “We have been told it will take between a few days to weeks for the investigation into these six cases, and to identify and treat any new cases. J&J was only 6.6 percent of the vaccine utilized in Minnesota and no side effects of the clotting issue were identified in our state.
“If you are over three weeks out from receiving J&J and you have had no adverse reactions thus far indicating a clotting issue, you should not be overly concerned. For those within three weeks of your J& J vaccine, monitor for headaches, abdominal pain, leg pain, or shortness of breath and seek out healthcare for evaluation. These side effects of clotting have not been linked with Pfizer or Moderna vaccinations and we still strongly encourage anyone who was waiting to receive J&J to seek out the other available vaccination options.”
Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are generally available at clinics, hospitals and pharmacies through Itasca County. Appointment availability varies, depending on the facility’s current supply.
Bigfork Valley (Bigfork) – 16 and older, with appointments scheduled as vaccine supplies are available. Call 218-743-4444, option 4 or email COVIDWaitList@BigforkValley.org to be added to contact list.
Essentia Health Deer River (Deer River) – 16 and older, call 218-786-1750 or visit www.essentiahealth.org.
Grand Itasca Clinic & Hospital (Grand Rapids) and Fairview Range (Hibbing) – 16 and older, call Grand Itasca at 218-326-7344 or Fairview Range at 218-362-6937. Appointments for vaccines at either facility can also be made on MyChart.
Itasca County Public Health: working with specific groups and locations. Periodic public clinics announced at the department’s Facebook page and website.
Scenic Rivers Health Care clinics in Bigfork, Northome, Big Falls, Cook, Tower and Floodwood are vaccinating as supplies allow. Call 877-541-2817 .
Thrifty White Pharmacies (Grand Rapids): 16 or 18 and older (both Pfizer and Moderna available), www.thriftywhite.com. Those needing registration assistance may call individual locations.
Walmart Pharmacies: availability is updated daily at www.walmart.com, including for the Grand Rapids location.
Itasca residents with questions or concerns may leave them at the Itasca County COVID message line, with calls returned 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday – Friday. The Itasca COVID line number is 218-327-6784. Information about vaccination options and current local data and information may be found at the county’s website here: https://www.co.itasca.mn.us/798/COVID-19-Coronavirus-Information