BRAINERD, Minn. -- Is there bad news ahead for the Brainerd area?

The New York Times thinks it’s possible, based on population-adjusted COVID-19 data. The Brainerd micropolitan area shot up a national list maintained by the newspaper Thursday, April 8, as seventh in the country where new cases are increasing fastest. The top 20 list included no other Minnesota locations, while 14 of the 20 were metropolitan and micropolitan areas in Michigan.

The list is limited to areas with at least 50,000 people and figures are sorted by the difference between the number of cases in the past week compared to the week prior, the Times reports. The Brainerd micropolitan statistical area, which includes Cass and Crow Wing counties, showed an increase of 142 cases per 100,000 people, according to the Times. Topping the list Thursday was Mount Pleasant, Michigan, with an increase of 288 cases per 100,000 people. New York City, meanwhile, ranked 545th on the list with a decrease of 35.4 cases per 100,000.

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“That is definitely a list we don’t want to be on,” said Michelle Moritz, Crow Wing County public health supervisor, during a phone interview Thursday. “I know that our health care community, business community and public health, along with the pharmacies, have been working very hard to offer the opportunity for people to be vaccinated, as well as continuing to share the message of social distancing, hand washing and staying home when they’re sick. We’ll just continue to drive these messages to our community and look for their cooperation with continuing to be vigilant about COVID, because it certainly is not over.”

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While the Brainerd area was specifically called out by the Times, the Minnesota Department of Health said it doesn’t see the region as standing out among escalating case numbers in the state as a whole.

“We don’t use the same metrics as the NYT, so it’s hard to say,” stated Doug Schultz, health department information officer, in an emailed statement Thursday. “There’s no reason to doubt their data, but we aren’t seeing a significant difference in this County/metro area compared to others. Cases are increasing statewide, with variations in how quickly cases are increasing in different counties. This is normal and has happened throughout the pandemic.”

The health department pointed to its own weekly COVID-19 report, which compiles a number of statistics including the weekly case rate by county of residence. The most recent report published Thursday shows the state map for March 21-27 consists of noticeably darker shades of blue, compared to the week prior, indicating higher positive cases rates by population nearly everywhere.

That data is nearly two weeks old, however, compared to the Times’ up-to-date comparisons. While Cass and Crow Wing counties make up the statistical area, data shows Crow Wing is largely driving the increase. Since March 27, another 359 new cases of COVID-19 were reported among Crow Wing County residents, while Cass added 85. This is a rate of 55 cases per 10,000 in Crow Wing, and 28.5 per 10,000 in Cass.

With 43 reported Thursday, Crow Wing surpassed the 400-mark for the number of cases recorded in the last 14 days. That figure was below 300 as recently as Sunday. The county reported 12 new hospitalizations of residents since Monday, and on Tuesday, Moritz said those admitted have shifted to people in their 30s, 40s and 50s, many of whom have no known underlying conditions.

“Having people come back in now for COVID is … a reminder of what we saw in the fall, and all of those workers, I’m sure, are fearful that we would be seeing the same kind of cases again,” Moritz said.

Testing numbers for the county have dropped, Moritz said, but what has not dropped is the importance of staying home if sick with any of the symptoms associated with COVID-19.

“It’s still, you know, just as important now, to know if it is COVID and to treat it as such, with staying home when they’re sick and staying away from other people to slow that spread,” she said. “But also, their close contacts need to be treating it as if it is COVID and getting tested and staying away from others. Because that’s how we stop the spread, is knowing what we’re dealing with, staying home and limiting our contact with others.”

Persistent vaccine misinformation

When it comes to the vaccine, Moritz said she fears misinformation is driving some people’s lack of desire to get vaccinated. She said one myth in particular that seems to have staying power is concerning and false — that the COVID-19 vaccine causes infertility.

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The Mayo Clinic addresses this claim in a list of frequently asked questions, calling efforts to discredit the vaccine on this basis part of a “sophisticated disinformation campaign … claiming that antibodies to the spike protein of COVID-19 produced from these vaccines will bind to placental proteins and prevent pregnancy.”

“This disinformation is thought to originate from internet postings by a former scientist known to hold anti-vaccine views. These postings are not scientifically plausible, as COVID-19 infection has not been linked to infertility,” the Mayo Clinic states. “Also, no other viral infection or vaccination-inducing immunity by similar mechanisms has been shown to cause infertility. Antibodies to the spike protein have not been linked to infertility after COVID-19 infection. There is no scientific reason to believe this will change after vaccination for COVID-19.”

Moritz said she understands the fear but encourages people to find reputable sources of information to learn more about the vaccine.

“Knowing that there’s so many women around me that struggle with fertility, that’s something that of course, when they hear that this is going to have an issue, of course you would be concerned. But look at the information from the manufacturers and from CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), and know that this (other) information is not coming from reliable sources,” Moritz said. “So we want to get the best information in the hands of our young men and women to make the best educated decision about vaccines.

“There’s a lot of materials out there. There’s a lot of different groups that do want to scare people about vaccinations, regardless if it’s COVID, or if it’s one of the other viruses and vaccine opportunities that are out there. We just want them to take the time to educate themselves on this before making that decision.”

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Moritz said Thursday’s vaccination clinics in Emily and Breezy Point had a great turnout and she hopes to see that continue on Tuesday when Crow Wing County Community Services hosts another vaccination clinic. Public health staff are also working with Central Lakes College to host an upcoming clinic for students and staff that will be open to the public as well, and staff at Grand View Lodge asked to host an event for its employees next week.

As of Tuesday, nearly 23,000 Crow Wing County residents had received at least one dose of the vaccine. This represents 44% of the county’s 16-plus population.

“We’re going to keep going with offering vaccine opportunities as much as possible to our community,” Moritz said. “Today, we put a call out to our businesses again and asked them who might be interested in having us come to them, because we want to make it as simple as possible for people to come and get vaccinated — to make whatever barriers not an issue and no barriers for getting vaccinated. We’re looking for ideas.”

Visit https://bit.ly/3fK5ldr to register for upcoming Crow Wing County vaccination clinics.

COVID-19 data as of April 8

  • Aitkin — 1,251 (+6 since Wednesday), with 36 deaths; 6,307 residents have received at least one vaccine dose, representing 47% of the county’s 16-plus population.

  • Cass — 2,382 (+9) with 26 deaths; 9,286 residents with at least one dose, 39%.

  • Crow Wing — 5,826 (+43), with 86 deaths; 22,687 residents with at least one dose, 44%.

  • Mille Lacs — 2,660 (+22), with 47 deaths; 8,103 residents with at least one dose, 40%.

  • Morrison — 3,782 (+24), with 56 deaths; 9,439 residents with at least one dose, 36%.

  • Todd — 2,634 (+9), with 30 deaths; 6,248 residents with at least one dose, 32%.

  • Wadena — 1,390 (+5), with 20 deaths; 4,181 residents with at least one dose, 39%.

NOTE: These numbers are cumulative since March 21, 2020, and many are out of isolation.