DULUTH – The pandemic has been winning battle after battle Up North lately as efforts to contain the virus fall short.

Duluth schools are going all-virtual after a hybrid start. Itasca County is giving up on contact tracing. Nearly half of all St. Louis County residents say they know someone who has COVID-19, and less than a dozen critical care hospital beds remain available in all of northeastern Minnesota.

On Sept. 8, the first day of school, St. Louis County had reported 1,040 cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic's onset. Eight new infections were recorded in the county that day.

Now cases are growing by triple digits on a daily basis, a trend that continued with Wednesday's 150 new infections and prompted a return to distance learning across a region that started the fall with fewer restrictions.

Duluth Superintendent John Magas announced Tuesday that the city's public schools would make all classes remote and halt in-person sports and activities through Dec. 14. Elementary students were previously following a hybrid schedule that put them in the classroom twice a week.

In a statement, Magas warned the district may have to operate remotely through Jan. 8 "due to continued high rates of community spread and holiday exposures."

Neighboring Barnum, Cloquet, Esko, Hermantown and Superior, Wis., school districts have also switched students, at least in the upper grade levels, to distance learning.

"We join the city and neighboring districts and communities to encourage preventive measures, including mask wearing and social distancing," Magas said. "We all want our students back in school safely and our collective efforts can help make that a reality."

In St. Louis County, the state's largest county by area, community spread of the virus has grown steadily for weeks. About one-fifth of the county's 4,717 COVID-19 cases reported since March have been added in the last week, and data shows community exposure is the single greatest driver of new infections.

According to an ongoing survey from Carnegie Mellon University, about 47% of St. Louis County residents say they know someone who has COVID-19 symptoms. That rate ranks 22nd out of the country's 350 most populous counties.

Duluth city offices have again closed to the public and a quarter of the police force is in quarantine, prompting an emergency staffing plan first implemented in March.

Local hospitals had raised the alarm last month about strained capacity as more patients put off routine care and ended up in the emergency room, complicating the expected surge in coronavirus infections that is now playing out.

"Our providers are incredibly busy caring for both COVID-19 and non-COVID patients," Essentia Health spokesperson Louie St. George III said.

"As a result, our resources are being strained. Capacity and ICU bed availability are tight, but we're constantly monitoring the situation — and communicating and collaborating with our community partners — to ensure that we're able to provide patient care."

City, school and hospital officials are expected to give a broader update on the virus' local effects on Thursday.

This week Gov. Tim Walz has ordered bars and restaurants to close by 10 p.m. and limited gatherings to 10 people in new "surgical" measures meant to slow the spread of the virus that has killed 2,754 Minnesotans to date.

"This is where we can have the biggest impact in the shortest amount of time without the massive disruption," Walz said Tuesday.

In Itasca County, home to Grand Rapids and about 45,000 people, county officials have abandoned contact tracing as case numbers continue to rise too fast to keep up with. As of Wednesday, cases had grown 22% in the past week.

"If you are in a group setting, just assume someone has COVID," the county's public health manager, Kelly Chandler, said in a statement. "We don't want to use up health care resources needlessly."

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