One St. Louis County commissioner put on a mask during a staff report Tuesday in Duluth about the increased COVID-19 threat locally, while another declined to take the word of the public health official giving the report.
“This is really good information,” Chisholm-based Board Chair Mike Jugovich said, applying a mask during the County Board meeting, where commissioners were informed about the more contagious delta variant and why St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services recommended a communitywide return to mask-wearing in public places with an announcement Monday.
Six of seven commissioners wore masks throughout most of the meeting.
But the staff report and public health recommendation wasn’t enough to convince Commissioner Keith Nelson, who noted he was the only person in the meeting room refusing to wear a mask after Jugovich put on his.
“I represent 28,000 constituents, and what I’m hearing is we don’t know who to believe anymore,” Nelson, representing the Virginia area, said. “At this point, I don’t believe the media, I don’t believe the CDC, I don’t believe half of what I’m hearing, because they just don’t know.”
Nelson went on to say he’s vaccinated against COVID-19, and that he’d talk to his personal physician before returning to wearing a mask.
“I don’t understand why we can’t get definitive answers,” said Nelson, making a point of saying it's the first time he hasn't taken the local public health director at her word.
But Director of Public Health and Human Services Linnea Mirsch appeared to provide several answers, while also saying more work was being done domestically and internationally to better understand the delta variant that is responsible for increased concern worldwide.
“We’ve known for a while we should expect and understand that all variants were everywhere in the state of Minnesota,” Mirsch said. “Now, we can say the majority of cases are the delta strain of the virus.”
She explained the county’s current 54 cases were enough to trigger the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s marker for substantial transmission status. It’s not the highest level of community spread, but it comes with a recommendation that masks be worn in indoor public spaces.
“We knew we were heading in that direction, so it wasn’t a surprise,” Mirsch said of the local rise in cases.
She explained that vaccination reduces the impact of the delta variant in terms of deaths and hospitalizations, but that vaccinated people can carry a similar viral load as someone who is unvaccinated, making vaccinated folks spreaders of the disease as well.
“I would continue to say our best way through this is to get to the level of vaccinations we need,” Mirsch said.
The county's unwritten goal, according to spokesperson Dana Kazel, is 70% vaccination for people 16 and older. The county is at 67.1% vaccinated within that population. Even if it reaches 70%, the county will continue to press for all eligible people, "because every person vaccinated is one less potentially serious outcome and one less opportunity for the virus to mutate," Kazel said.
Public health officials will be vaccinating people and fielding questions at the St. Louis County Fair in Chisholm beginning Wednesday, and at National Night Out events throughout the county this week, Mirsch reported.
Commissioner Patrick Boyle, a nurse practitioner representing eastern Duluth, weighed in, too, reiterating that vaccination didn’t prevent a person from spreading the disease.
“This variant is very unique to what we’ve seen in the past,” Boyle said, before making a plea to do right by the county’s students. “We can’t lose another year of them having to be placed on and off again. It is not healthy for these kids. It’s agonizing for every family.”
Vaccination, Boyle added, was the only way to ensure better in-person outcomes for the upcoming school year.
Nelson agreed with Boyle, saying that imperiling students' education was a reason to be vaccinated. But he took issue with the county's messaging, saying it was either missing people or misinforming them.
"A whole lot of people don't believe what they're hearing; that's why we're not seeing vaccinations," Nelson said, encouraging residents to speak with their physicians.
"It was so freeing to not have to wear a mask," Commissioner Frank Jewell, representing central Duluth, said. "I can only ask that when those respected authorities do say things, we act on them, knowing they're fairly common-sense actions we can take. Like everybody else, I want this to be over."
Western Duluth-based Commissioner Ashley Grimm said instilling trust in the county's public health department will save lives.
"I hope we all are advocates of our public health department," she said.