Health officials: Testing still important, COVID still very real
By Anna Jauhola
Over the last several weeks, Kittson County has experienced a steady rise in COVID-19 cases. While the good news is these haven’t been linked to large gatherings, the not so good news is the positivity rate shows community transmission is a part of the issue.
Andrea Swenson, RN, director of clinic nursing at Kittson Healthcare in Hallock, said there has not been a huge surge in COVID cases. The lab at the Hallock clinic keeps tabs on the number of positive tests and for the month of September, the clinics in Hallock and Karlstad, along with the emergency room in Hallock, tested an average of 10 people per day.
“I think the highest we had was 30 in one day,” Swenson said. “But it was a large variage for sure. These were symptomatic people and exposures.”
Although these cases did not stem from large events, that does not mean people should drop their guard when gathering with large or small groups. Jeanna Kujava, Kittson County public health director, said she was surprised by this information as she continued to conduct contact tracing calls.
She urges people to continue taking preventive measures. Swenson said any clusters of positive tests have been families.
School being back in session is a major player in the spread of COVID. Kujava said each school in the county has a decision tree they follow regarding symptoms. If students or staff have just one symptom – fever being the exception – of any illness, they’re not going to immediately be sent or made to stay home. However, two or more symptoms require them to stay home and get tested for COVID.
“If you have a fever, you need to stay home regardless,” Kujava said.
“Especially since we’re moving into flu and RSV season,” Swenson said. “COVID is not the only infectious disease we need to be careful of preventing.”
Kujava noted that this time last year, the Delta variant of COVID was not present in the area. She said it is comparable to the chickenpox virus in that Delta can affect up to 10 people around a positive individual.
“It’s quite a bit different than the original virus,” Kujava said. “It didn’t have that transmissibility. And that’s exactly what variants do. They create a more robust mechanism so they can survive, and that’s what we’re seeing.”
Of those who have tested positive recently, Swenson said it’s been a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals. In September, of the 40 positive cases reported from Kittson Healthcare, Swenson said she reported 15 of those as breakthrough cases.
Breakthrough cases are individuals who have been fully vaccinated and test positive for COVID-19. Swenson and Kujava stress this does not mean people shouldn’t get vaccinated. As with any vaccine, it is not 100 percent effective at preventing the disease.
If a vaccinated individual contracts COVID, their symptoms and chances of hospitalization will be lessened.
“The good part is we haven’t seen a ton of people severely ill. We’re still seeing asymptomatic positives. We’re still seeing people with very mild, just standard symptoms,” Swenson said. “Even in people vaccinated, they might have the standard loss of taste and smell, congestion or mild cough. You wouldn’t be able to pick out whether someone is vaccinated or not based on the positives we’re seeing.”
The Minnesota Department of Health has been analyzing swabs of positive cases that facilities send in for testing.
“When we send them swabs from our breakthrough cases, they test the viral load and then compare those to samples from unvaccinated people,” Swenson said. “And they are actually finding that the viral load in those who are vaccinated is less. So, you are less likely to be able to spread COVID if you are positive and vaccinated, in comparison with unvaccinated people.”
Testing for COVID is still important. The clinics are still doing testing every day for symptomatic and exposed patients, Swenson said, and staff follow strict guidance.
If someone is vaccinated and is exposed to someone with COVID, but tests negative, they do not have to quarantine. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highly recommends they wear a mask until their test comes back negative.
Exposure is defined as being within 6 feet of a person who has COVID for 15 minutes or more within a 24 hour period.
If an unvaccinated person, any exposure requires that person to quarantine.
Should vaccinated and unvaccinated people test positive, regardless they must quarantine. The quarantine period remains the same – 10 days from onset of symptoms or 10 days from your positive test if you don’t have symptoms, Swenson said.
“In addition, a part people kind of forget is that your symptoms have to be improving and you have to be fever-free for 24 hours. So it’s not always just the 10-day mark – it’s the 10 days plus improvement in how you’re feeling,” Swenson said. “So get vaccinated. It literally makes your life easier.”
Swenson added that COVID tests themselves are still free. However, insurance companies are beginning to require patients to contribute their co-pays for the office visit.
Masks and basic hygiene are still the best defense against spreading COVID. Masks are used as a means of source control — in other words, they prevent the wearer’s germs from propelling into the air and infecting other people. Masks also, to a lesser degree, protect the wearer from others’ germs as well.
“Obviously, if your’e wearing a mask, you’re less likely to have droplets coming to your own nose and mouth too,” Swenson said. “They consider it a benefit of wearing a mask. But, it is not the purpose of wearing a mask as source control.”
Kujava noted mask wearing is most effective when everyone wears one.
“We could really be better off as a community if we did it together,” she said.
On the hospital side, Kittson Healthcare has been struggling to find open beds at regional facilities for patients who need to be transferred for higher levels of care. Tawnya Sorenson, director of nursing, said her staff in the hospital and emergency room have had to treat several patients in recent weeks for non-COVID related issues because there is no room at larger facilities.
“We’ve held them in the ER and admitted to the hospital because we couldn’t transfer them out,” Sorenson said on Friday, Oct. 1. “We currently have someone (in our care) because we can’t find placement, but they need to go.”
For the most part, Kittson Healthcare has been treating cardiac and surgical patients by consulting with corresponding professionals at larger facilities via telehealth until a bed opens up. Sorenson said the turnaround to transfer out patients has been anywhere from two hours to 48 hours.
“When you know for the best outcome for that patient is to get them to that higher level of care, that’s a long wait,” Sorenson said. “I know there’s other facilities (like ours) that have had higher intensive patients that they’ve had to hang onto, and I feel like we’ve been really lucky.”
Kittson Healthcare has also offloaded patients from other hospitals to help make room for COVID-related illnesses, she said. The hospital is also still prepared to take minor COVID-positive patients, should need be.
The biggest issue otherwise is the staffing shortage. Some nurses have moved on or reduced their hours, Sorenson said. To help alleviate some of the pressure, she would like to have three more nurses.
“It’s manageable, but people are just getting tired,” Sorenson said.
All three women agreed, the best actions for the public to take are to carefully monitor for any symptoms, get tested when necessary and just stay home if you feel ill.