ROCHESTER, Minn. — Saying "each case that's successfully isolated can prevent dozens of cases," state health officials on Friday, Nov. 13, announced they will begin sending text messages to everyone they contact in connection to new COVID-19 cases.
Text messages will be sent to anybody identified as a positive case, or a contact of a positive case.
"We think texting people before we call them will reduce the number of calls we make, alert people that we will be calling, and encourage them to answer that call," state Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm said on a Friday afternoon media call attended by Gov. Tim Walz and University of Minnesota epidemiologist Dr. Michael Osterholm.
Should you receive one, the text will read: Answer the Call: State and local public health department staff will be calling you with important information about your health. Please answer the call from xxx-xxx-xxxx. This is an automated text message, please do not reply.
Health officials have struggled in recent weeks to keep up with the demands of contact tracing, the calling of everyone identified as exposed during the 48 hours prior to onset of syptoms by someone who has received a positive test for COVID-19.
Contact tracing is designed to advise those exposed to a virus to receive a test, as well as to quarantine at home for two weeks in order to avoid giving the virus to anyone else. It is a cornerstone of pandemic mitigation strategy, and has been used to slow the spread of COVID-19 in countries across the world.
The health department has shifted 500 people into contract tracing positions this year and yet with the state now identifying 6,000 new cases a day, the work of calling those contacted is bottomless.
Some community health organizations have given up on it altogether, asking those who are positive to do it themselves.
Minnesotans are either refusing to pick up the phone when the health department calls, or withholding information during their interview out of concern they will be asked to quarantine.
Health officials add that many simply do not pick up calls from numbers they do not recognize.
The urgency of gaining buy-in for contact tracing was underscored by the news that the state is experiencing exponential spread, a mushrooming of illness. Although it took seven months to get to 100,000 cases, it then took just seven weeks to reach 200,000 cases. It will likely only be three weeks to reach 300,000 cases later this month, according to projections.
"We have four states around us that have surpassed 150 cases per 100,000," Walz said. "Minnesota is now about at 120 ... We have not seen those numbers anywhere on the planet. We can choose to believe this is real and it is not like the flu or something. We owe it to our neighbors, health care workers, teachers and children to do the things that we know that can slow this down."
Osterholm described a goal of simply slowing the loss of life until the first quarter of 2021, when he believes that a vaccine should begin to become available. Minnesota now has 1,424 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 and 293 in an ICU setting, both records.
"The next three weeks of cases are already into the system," said Osterholm, who on Nov. 9 was named to President-elect Joe Biden's COVID-19 Advisory Board. "We're asking health care workers to run three marathons today, and the next day, and at some point they can't continue to run these marathons. They are mentally and physically exhausted ... we have to preserve these people for the months ahead."
"This is our COVID year," Osterholm added, before launching into an appeal for listeners to essentially cancel Thanksgiving as they know it. "I have been in too many situations where young healthy adults or others have come home for celebrations and transmitted the virus in the home, only to find that several weeks later grandpa and grandma or mom and dad or Uncle Joe and Aunt Jane are dead."
"If we really want to be serious this year about loving and protecting our family, we will think about these holiday get-togethers this year. As much as we want and need them emotionally, make this our gift to each other, that if you can't in the 14 days before you come home make sure you're not exposed, that you find alternative ways to celebrate Thanksgiving."
"This is our COVID year. I have been in too many situations where young healthy adults or others have come home for celebrations and transmitted the virus in the home, only to find that several weeks later grandpa and grandma or mom and dad or Uncle Joe and Aunt Jane are dead."
— Dr. Michael Osterholm, University of Minnesota epidemiologist
By the numbers
The state of Minnesota reported an additional 5,552 cases of COVID-19 on Friday, Nov. 13. The new cases bring the total case count in the state to 207,339.
The new cases came on top of a record-setting day for new tests, as the state reported nearly 49,000 tests taken. The 48,915 new tests meant that 2,093,262 Minnesotans have now been tested for the virus.
Also on Friday, the state reported 46 additional deaths from the illness, the second-highest one-day total after the 56 deaths reported on Wednesday. One of the deaths reported Friday was a resident of Clay County in their 20s. who had no underlying health conditions.
Of the 46 deaths reported Friday, 33 or over 70% were recorded outside the seven-county metro area. Since Monday, 183 Minnesotans have died from COVID-19, making it the deadliest week since the start of the outbreak.
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- Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 hotline: 651-201-3920.
- COVID-19 discrimination hotline: 833-454-0148
- Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 website: Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) website.