Itasca County is seeing a new surge in COVID-19 cases and residents are asked to continue to wear masks, avoid gathering and stay home if experiencing any of COVID’s many possible symptoms.

“We have all been asked to do hard things such as not gathering with our families and friends, foregoing celebrations and holidays,” said Kelly Chandler, division manager, Itasca County Public Health. “As hard as this was, we know that our COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths decreased when we made these sacrifices.

“We are asking you to do the things that keep us safe a little while longer – please stay home when you are sick, even with minor symptoms such as congestion or a headache, keep wearing your masks and continue to stay six feet from others, especially others who are not fully vaccinated.

“It is allergy season again. It can be difficult to determine if congestion is due to allergies or COVID. Even with small symptoms such as sniffles, children should be staying home from school and sports to keep their friends and teammates from becoming ill.”

Over the past seven days, 76 new cases of COVID-19 have been identified among Itasca residents, twice as many as the week before (31). When measured as a 14-day rate per 10,000 residents, Itasca County has jumped from a low last week of 14 to 23.1 this week.

At the same time, vaccinations in the Itasca area continue to climb. As of March 18, the number of Itasca County residents receiving at least their first dose stands at 12,382, or 27.4 percent of the population.

“We are in a good spot with vaccinations coming into Itasca -- less than a year into a pandemic,” said Chandler. “In Itasca County we have vaccinated 76% of our 65+ senior population and we are very proud of reaching this many of our neighbors with the highest risk of poor outcomes. Even if you feel you are not at high risk of a poor outcome, we want you to vaccinate when you are eligible.“

For Itasca residents who are homebound and not able to leave to access vaccines, call the Itasca County Public Health COVID information line at 218-327-6784 and leave a message with their name, phone number, physical address and email address (if available). Public health staff will follow up to make special arrangements.

Itasca County providers now are vaccinating Phase 1a and Phase 1b priority groups as defined by the Minnesota Department of Health. This includes healthcare workers, paid and unpaid caregivers, E-12 school staff, youth workers, childcare providers, persons aged 45-64 with underlying medical conditions, persons 16-44 with two or more underlying conditions, people age 50 years and older in multigenerational housing. For most local vaccinators, priority populations also currently include workers in the following sectors: agriculture, additional school and childcare workers, airport staff, correctional settings, first responders, food production, judicial system workers, manufacturing, postal service workers, public transit workers and public health workers.

In the year since COVID hit Itasca County, networks of community leaders have been meeting regularly to share needs, supports and information. Initially, topics included how to source personal protective equipment and how to prioritize testing. As the finish line now is within sight, the focus also includes issues such as domestic and sexual violence, which had been more hidden from view during the pandemic.

According to Becky Lauer, division manager for Itasca County’s Family and Child Services, her agency had seen a steady increase in the number of child protection cases between 2015 and early 2020. COVID actually resulted in a 24 percent decrease in the number of cases reported to her agency, based in large part on children being isolated and not having an outlet to report abuse or neglect.

During the pandemic, families have struggled with financial, social, and emotional issues, resulting in an increase in drug and alcohol use. The combination of all these challenges also has resulted in an increase in sexual abuse and domestic violence.

When schools resumed in-person, children began reporting what had occurred during the time they and their families were isolated at home. The number of Itasca County children involved in cases alleging sexual abuse averaged five per month in 2019, dropped to three per month in 2020 and now has increased again to five per month in in first two months of 2021.

Even more sobering, the number of children involved in cases alleging domestic violence averaged eight per month in 2019 and 2020 and is currently at an alarming 19 children per month in the first two months of 2021. Most of these cases also involve drug and/or alcohol use and mental health challenges.

“COVID has perpetuated the isolation of victims and complicated the provision of support services,” said Lauer. “Our agency continues to collaborate with families, schools, and community partners to establish a continuum of services to support children and families to address all the challenges that continue because of COVID.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing sexual or domestic violence, please reach out to law enforcement, social services, or our community partners to seek assistance.

Advocates for Family Peace provides services to families experiencing domestic violence and child abuse in Itasca and northern St. Louis counties.

“A lot of the trauma seen lately has definitely been compounded by COVID-19,” said Mandie Aalto, executive director for Advocates for Family Peace. “It’s important for the community to know that our services have been open and available throughout the pandemic.

“For those who have family members, neighbors, or friends going through violence right now, there’s a lot of power in being able to look at them and say, ‘I see you’ and offer some kindness. And please let them know that there are options for getting support.”

Advocates for Family Peace is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s confidential, free, and voluntary. Phone numbers are 218-326-0388 in Itasca and 218-248-5512 in St. Louis County.

“With COVID, there’s a real threat to going out into public and being around others. This has changed the way we’ve gone about dating,” said Katelin Parker, victim services and sexually exploited youth coordinator, Support Within Reach. “Often, we’ve not been setting our usual boundaries and moving faster than normal. Economic difficulties have increased reliance on each other and our partners. These are optimal conditions for abuse to happen.”

Throughout the pandemic, Support within Reach advocates have continued to serve clients as well as support different providers and at-risk groups with information and referrals. The agency’s advocates currently are able to meet with clients face to face.

“Abuse starts out with subtle control and disrespect and gains intensity over time,” says Parker. “Red flags to look out for when considering a new partner include:

If they speak disrespectfully about a former partner,

If they disrespect, insult, or belittle you,

If they pressure you for sex or don’t respect your method of protection,

If they do favors that you do not want or show too much generosity that makes you uncomfortable,

Undermine your progress in life,

They get serious about the relationship too fast,

Intimidate you when angry or prevent you from moving freely,

Ridicule you when you complain.

“Seek out support from friends, family, coworkers, community service providers. Even if you are just looking for information, we are here to help.

Support Within Reach has six offices throughout north-central Minnesota. The phone number for the Grand Rapids office is 218-326-5008 and in Bemidji it is 218-244-9524.

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

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