Polk County Public Health Director Sarah Reese updated the Polk County Commissioners on COVID-19 in Polk County during a conference call on Tuesday, including the one confirmed case in the county (for that story click here). 

Reese told the commissioners that the case is believed to be related to international travel but still urged caution because nearby counties have seen instances of community transmission. “While I say that this case was related to international travel, I have a giant caution flag up because we know that our neighboring counties have discovered COVID cases,” said Reese. “We also know there is community spread, meaning person to person, happening across Minnesota. Quite likely, we also have COVID (community spreading) here in Polk County, we just haven’t had a lab-confirmed case. As the days progress, we can see that those cases continue to rise in Minnesota and across the United States, so all the more reason people take those personal precautions.  Two are noteworthy; one is social distancing.  That six feet and that ability to stay six feet apart from another is critical.    The other thing is that we continue to be diligent about handwashing. Frequent handwashing is really important and something that we can all do to protect ourselves.” 

Commissioner Gerald Jacobson asked whether the hospitals and health centers in the county were ready if COVID-19 hits the county hard.  Reese said that one of the crucial pieces of the “Stay at Home” order was not only to have a response for the people who currently have COVID-19 but to prepare a surge plan as the number of cases expand. “One of the things that’s important about the “Stay at Home” order is not only to be able to respond to the people that currently have COVID, but to prepare for what this is going to look like at is expands through Minnesota,” said Reese. “One of the things that is happening in our northwest region is that our Northwest Health Coalition and our health care partners, the health care systems in Polk County, are working on what we call surge plans.  That is their ability to take their current resources and expand within their walls to have more bed availability and also for the region to work with the State of Minnesota Emergency Managers about bed availability, be it in the walls of the hospital or alternative settings.”

Reese said Polk County’s health care partner’s plans include articulating resources they have available, including beds, supplies, but also doctors and nurses. “They are articulating what resources they have available in terms of beds and supplies, but also in terms of staffing,” said Reese. “One of the things we are talking about in the region is we only have so many doctors, nurses, support staff and ancillary staff, so who is going to fill those roles when we have an expanded need.  I think we have the commitment and drive from our health systems to serve our region well, and yet, we still have a lot of things that need to be ironed out.  That is happening at a local, regional, state, and truly a national level because there are only so many supplies available.  The Governor is definitely diligent in saying we will obtain the resources we need to obtain. Still, we need to do that responsibility and ethically knowing that our neighboring states are rumbling with the same issues.”

Commissioner Gary Willhite asked whether testing was available and what type of testing.  Reese said the health care systems are doing the testing, but who can be tested depends on what labs they are using to complete the tests. “Each health system does the testing based on their health system and whatever lab they are sending the testing too,” said Reese. “The criteria for health systems utilizing the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Lab is very narrow, and that criteria has been narrow for quite some time, and has not changed.  If health systems are using an external lab, meaning not the MDH, then their criteria can be more accepting if they choose to do that, so it’s up to each health system right now.  There are processes in place to use a nurse call line in each of the health systems to determine if testing is warranted.  One, we don’t test people that aren’t ill at this point, and two, each health system works through the criteria related to clinical systems and advises if a patient should come for testing.  That is done onsite and typically, through a curbside testing option.”

Reese also addressed antibody testing that has become a hot topic in recent days, saying that she didn’t have too many details as it’s something new just being rolled out, but that it’s not a lab-confirmed positive test of COVID-19. “There are some entities that are looking at doing what is called an antibody test, which is not a lab-confirmed test through the MDH,” said Reese. “They are exploring options through partnerships with Mayo to do antibody testing. It’s a little different in that it’s not a lab-confirmed case, but it does show that you have the antibodies for it.  That is being explored as an innovative solution to return folks to work and do some projection and preventive measures.  I can’t speak to the details of it because I’ve just heard that’s it’s rolling out now.”

Reese said that currently, there isn’t the capability for doing the antibody test in Polk County and that it would not be a part of the data of confirmed tests the MDH is tracking.  Reese also said we have to remember there is no treatment, so a positive test is just a test. “We have to remember that there is no vaccine and no treatment,” said Reese. “So, having a positive test just tells us we have a positive test.  That doesn’t negate the fact that people should stay home when they are sick.  They should be limiting contact in public and all of those things, cleaning surfaces regularly, maybe be in separate rooms from family members.  The test just proves that they are positive, but that doesn’t negate the important pieces that happen for that person that is sick.  They still need to stay home and not be out in public intermingling with people. Whether it’s an acute respiratory illness or COVID, it’s still important from a transmission perspective that folks are mindful of that.  It calms our mind to know if our test is positive or negative, but at the end of the day, it’s really important that folks that are sick stay home.”