A global pandemic was always coming, it was just a matter of “when,” not “if,” said Carver County Director of Public Health Richard Scott.
“Those of us in the field knew it was inevitable,” he said.
A pandemic hitting in 2020? No one foresaw that, Scott said.
But that doesn’t mean public health officials weren’t prepared for something of the novel coronavirus magnitude. Now that COVID-19 has arrived and is spreading through communities, public health officials in Carver and Scott counties — and across the state — are using the time-tested practice of contact tracing to help slow its spread.
“They’re probably one of the most effective tools we currently have to control the spread of the coronavirus,” Scott said of contact tracing, which is the practice of tracking down those who may have been exposed to an infected person.
Contact tracing has been used for centuries for infectious diseases like measles and tuberculosis, he said, and now it’s being used daily to determine which area residents may have been exposed to COVID-19.
When COVID-19 started to pick up speed in Minnesota earlier this year, the state health department found itself overwhelmed with case loads as it began contact tracing, so it turned to the counties to help, said Scott County Public Health Director Lisa Brodsky.
When someone receives a positive test for COVID-19, the lab results are sent to the Minnesota Department of Health. Those results get loaded into a database, and each time a local resident tests positive, the county health department is notified. Scott County began case investigations May 10.
It’s then up to the county health departments to get in touch with the infected individual. They’ll usually call them by phone and first ensure they’re aware of the positive test result, Brodsky said. The contact tracers, which in Scott County include 24 trained public health employees and volunteers (even some volunteers from St. Catherine University), emphasize the importance of staying in isolation and away from others in their home.
Next, they try to determine who they’ve been in contact with.
“We go back two days prior of (the individual) having symptoms and try to identify who they’ve been in touch with,” Brodsky said. She added that could include any restaurants or bars they’ve frequented and their employer. Contact tracers don’t try to track down whoever an infected person may have come into contact with at a grocery store, for example, Brodsky said, because the risk for an environment like that is so low.
“If someone went to a bar and was there for a couple hours, that’s a much higher risk,” she said.
The contact tracer instructs the infected individual to find their contacts and inform them that they should be quarantining themselves for about 14 days after the exposure.
“Some of these contact investigations are quick, sometimes they take up to two hours,” Brodsky said.
As of July 15, Scott County had 953 positive coronavirus cases, according to the Minnesota Department of Health and Carver County had 518. Generally, contact tracers are able to make contact with patients within a day of their results entering the state database, Brodsky said.
Of course, some of those contact investigations are never completed because of disconnected phone lines or someone not returning calls, Brodsky said. But generally, people have been highly receptive, she said.
Carver County has bumped up the number of workers assisting with contact tracing. Additional public health staff members have been assigned to track cases and new volunteers have been trained, including some from the Medical Reserve Corps, Scott said.
While county health departments are helping slow the spread and measuring prevention through contact tracing, they’re also providing services and supplies to residents who may be in need. About 10% of the infected people Scott County has made contact with need some sort of assistance — whether that’s food, cleaning supplies or even a thermometer.
Scott County has partnered with area food banks and grocery stores to ensure those who are running low on food, but can’t afford it due to being out of work or being unable to leave their home for quarantining reasons, are able to eat — no matter what time of day it is, Brodsky said.
In Carver County, many residents are self-sufficient, Scott said — one of the benefits of a relatively affluent community. But there’s still a significant portion of the population that struggles, he said. The county has boots on the ground and in some areas has gone door-to-door to provide information, masks and food.
Both Brodsky and Scott said seeing the community pull together for their neighbors has been one positive spin outcome from the global pandemic.
In recent days, Scott County has seen an uptick in positive cases for those ages 0-17, representing 8% of positive cases, Brodsky said. The largest age group of positive cases in Scott County is those ages 18-34, representing 35% of positive cases, she said. Some of the uptick can be attributed to nail salons, restaurants, bars and even workplaces.
“In our cases investigation, some folks are carpooling together and that’s how they got their exposure,” she said.
There have been clusters of outbreaks at apartment buildings where young children play together, and even at graduation parties, she said.
Bars and restaurants that are not practicing physical distancing, limiting capacity and changing up seating arrangements have been a trouble area in Carver County, too, Scott said, adding the county has been able to curtail problem areas in a robust way.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends cloth face masks as a simple barrier to help stop the spread of COVID-19, particularly in instances where social distancing is difficult to maintain. The recommendation is based on what the CDC knows about the role respiratory droplets play in the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. The virus spreads mainly among people who are in close contact with one another, so face masks can help stop respiratory droplets from spreading into the air when people cough, sneeze, talk or raise their voices.
Contrary to some concerns of the public, many health experts have maintained there’s no scientific evidence that wearing a mask can cause negative side effects like carbon dioxide poisoning.
“For the most part, I’ve been very pleased with the amount of people wearing masks,” Brodsky said, adding she does believe it would be helpful if Gov. Tim Walz would create a statewide mask mandate.”If we don’t get a head of this, what’s going to happen during flu season?” she said, of overwhelming hospitals.
Scott said public health employees work at an interesting convergence of science and human behavior. Masks are strongly encouraged, he said, especially since people with COVID-19 can be asymptomatic and spread the virus to others.
“Sometimes policies have to be made for the greater good,” he said. “Your behavior is going to affect me, it’s not just about you.”
When the needs of Scott and Carver county residents changed at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, area food shelves adapted their services — thanks in part to donations from residents.
Organizations like Bountiful Basket Food Shelf, located in Chaska and also serving Carver, Chanhassen and Victoria, have seen a notable increase in food distributed in the initial months of 2020.
In a typical year, Bountiful Basket distributes about 300,000 pounds of food to those who need it. In the first three months of this year, they distributed 105,371 pounds. In March alone, 37,986 pounds of food were distributed, making it one of the organization’s “highest months ever,” said Chairman Tom Redman.
“Regarding food donations, our numbers have stayed constant, but the dollar donations have increased considerably,” Redman said. “Individuals, civic organizations, businesses, corporations and grants from nonprofits (in our community) have been amazing.”
Redman said there has been a small uptick those served.
“The largest increase would be in ‘new clients’ where we saw at least a doubling from around 50 a month in October through December compared to an average of over a 150 a month in January through March of this year,” said Redman.
People Reaching Out to People (PROP), based in Eden Prairie, distributed over 250,000 pounds of food donations between January and May of this year.
Executive Director Janet Palmer said these numbers are actually lower than 2019 because the organization’s “fresh choice market,” similar to a grocery store where individuals can shop for produce, dairy and bakery products, could not operate as usual in order to comply with health guidelines.
So far this year, PROP has seen a 4% increase in those using its services. Palmer said extra funding provided by the CARES Act for food bank administrative costs, and changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) have “really helped our customers.” However, right now, these “supports” are set to expire at the end of July.
“Once that ends, we predict two to four times the number of households that will need our services, with significant increases in September and October,” Palmer said.
The Scott County Community Action Partnership (CAP) Agency distributed 349,313 pounds of food in the first quarter of 2020, as compared to 321,814 pounds in the same timeframe in 2019.
The number of households being served by the CAP Agency has nearly doubled in 2020 as compared to 2019. In May 2020 alone, 3,622 households were using food donation services provided by the CAP Agency, where 810 were in May 2019. The largest increase comes from serving households through weekly pop-up food distributions that ran for 12 weeks beginning at the end of March, said Director of Nutrition and Community Services Jackie Lara.
Lara said the CAP Agency has seen an increase in monetary donations, as well as donations of food, toiletries, diapers and other essentials during the COVID-19 crisis.
“We can only serve those in need if we have the resources to do so,” Lara said. “We are so grateful for the community support during this time.”
While community needs changed in the early months of this year, guidelines for meeting those needs got complicated. Palmer said PROP has had to make “significant changes” based on what foods they are able to manage safely.
For example, “rescue food” donated from local grocery stores had to be suspended, which Palmer said was “a major hit” to the organization as they now have to purchase two to three times the food they normally would.
The food shelf has also changed their mix of perishable and non-perishable food stocks so more food can be boxed ahead of time. They are still able to provide essential food items like meat, eggs, milk and frozen vegetables along with boxed food in a curbside delivery model, Palmer said.
Volunteers are a vital part of the distribution process.
“We are 100% volunteers,” Redman said of Bountiful Basket. “As many employees are encouraged to work from home, we have continued to have all but a few of our volunteers show up to help.”
Despite the large number of senior volunteers at Bountiful Basket, Redman said people continue to show up to meet the needs of their community.
“We have encouraged those that do not feel comfortable coming in to volunteer to stay away until ... they feel they will be more safe, and some have opted to do this,” Redman said.
“CAP Agency has been here since 1965 to help others in their time of need and we do it in partnership with our community,” Lara said. “We depend on donations as well as volunteers to keep us going.”
“We know that the battle has yet to come, but we are well prepared,” Palmer said. “We appreciate the community that rallies when we need help.”