DULUTH – COVID-19 infections in St. Louis County are now higher than they were a year ago as a return to school, spotty mask-wearing and persistent vaccine refusal has again allowed the virus to take hold.

"Area hospitals have been at capacity for weeks and have had to divert patients," County Public Health Director Amy Westbrook wrote in an open letter this week. "So much of what we're seeing now — the deaths, the hospitalizations and the exhausted medical staff — is preventable."

Last year's fall and winter surge led to the deadliest wave of the pandemic here, accounting for a majority of the 341 deaths reported to date in St. Louis County.

Fewer people have died from the virus since vaccination became widely available this spring, but hospital beds — and nursing staff — are now scarce both for new COVID patients and anyone seeking emergency care.

"There are a ton of patients on high oxygen in the hospital. They're accumulating because they're staying a long time," said Dr. Christina Bastin De Jong, a critical care specialist at Essentia Health in Duluth. "We were already really, really busy before the surge started happening."

Across the state, just 53 of 1,161 ICU beds were available Wednesday, according to the most recent Minnesota Department of Health tally. Five ICU beds were open in northeastern Minnesota. Non-ICU beds are similarly hard to come by, with 9% of northeastern Minnesota's capacity remaining.

"I'm concerned there are patients that will end up not getting the care they need because capacity in the state is so full," Bastin De Jong said.

About 60% of all St. Louis County residents are vaccinated, leaving 80,000 people — including children who are not yet eligible for vaccines — more vulnerable to infection.

"With an average of 20-30 new cases in schools being reported every day, we already are seeing two important trends," Westbrook wrote. "In school settings where vaccination rates are highest, the transmission rates are lower. And even in school settings where vaccination rates are low, transmission rates are lower if there are layered strategies such as masking, social distancing, and good ventilation."

School response

The Hermantown school district didn't require students from early childhood to grade six to wear face masks in classrooms until the third week of school this month. Superintendent Wayne Whitwam notified parents on Sept. 16 that the area's case rate was high enough to mandate it.

Hermantown High School has no mask mandate.

But mask-wearing should be consistently required for everyone inside schools, especially for kids under age 12 who cannot yet be vaccinated, said Dr. Brianne Brandt-Griffith, whose two children are enrolled in Hermantown schools.

The delta variant is affecting children more than the original version of SARS-CoV-2, and the potential long-term effects of the virus are troubling, said Brandt-Griffith, an Essentia Health physician.

"If you can protect other people, why wouldn't you?" she asked.

According to media accounts, several northern Minnesota school districts faced angry parents when they enacted mask mandates this month, including Ely, Hibbing and Rock Ridge, the newly merged Eveleth-Gilbert and Virginia districts.

The Chisholm school district, which does not require masks, temporarily closed its elementary school just over a week into the school year because of an outbreak.

"This is why we encourage all districts to implement layered disease prevention approaches," Westbrook wrote. "This is why we continue to plead with people to get vaccinated, and why we continue to emphasize that vaccines are safe and remain our best defense against COVID-19."

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496

Jana Hollingsworth • 218-508-2450