It’s staggering to look back over the last year and the individual and community-wide impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. In early January, we were just beginning to hear about a virus, yet unnamed, moving quickly and globally undetected. The virus was identified in China in late December, was in Minnesota by early March, and by mid-March was here in St. Louis County. Pathogens know no borders or geography. Since then, as of mid-December, we have seen more than 11,000 cases reported in St. Louis County residents and, more troubling, 600 individuals hospitalized and 168 deaths.
I look back on 2020 and see three distinct phases of this pandemic.
In spring and early summer we tried to limit transmission and keep “the curve” as flat as possible. People cleared stores of toilet paper and other essential items. Our health care systems planned for large patient surges. We all prepared as individuals, families, and communities. We experienced low community transmission rates, but too many of our long-term care residents died from the disease. Across Minnesota, we worked to prevent and control the disease through turning up the dials on restrictions.
During the second phase, our transmission rates began climbing through early autumn. Testing became more available. “COVID fatigue” became a true sentiment.
Phase three began when community transmission became widespread and unchecked. In November, St. Louis County saw 56% of cases reported and 50% of COVID-19-related ICU admissions.
We now find ourselves asking how to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. How do we decrease the severe effects of COVID-19, knowing that our community is exhausted from these last 10 months, yet our current transmission rates remain unmanageable?
The pandemic continues to challenge us in so many ways beyond disease prevention and control. Most students are in distance- or hybrid-learning modes, and that stresses systems and families. Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank has seen a 15% increase in need over these recent months. The Lake Superior Drug Task Force reports an 18% increase in opioid overdoses in our county this year compared to last and a 22% increase in fatal overdoses.
We know decreased social connectedness and isolation may significantly exacerbate mental health conditions. Forty-one percent of Minnesota households reported experiencing anxiety and depression symptoms in November, up from 27% the first week of May, according to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics and its Household Pulse Survey. What will these community-health indicators look like in 2021 and beyond?
Health is all around us and is impacted not only by our individual behavior but, even more importantly, factors outside our individual control. Health is created through supportive environments, resilient communities, and just policies.
I see our next phase as one not so dark and foreboding but rather one that instills confidence and optimism. I see a chapter where a return to some pre-pandemic activities seems within reach.
As we end this COVID-19 year (good riddance!), vaccine distribution is just beginning. It is likely that health care workers will be receiving the COVID-19 vaccine before New Year’s Eve. We have a vaccine that went through all of the rigors and requirements of development, authorization, and recommendation. No safety measures were compromised. The vaccine is shown to be 95% effective at preventing COVID-19 infection. To be clear, it will likely be months before the vaccine is available to all adults. But the process is beginning, and that’s the best news I’ve heard in 2020.
We still have a ways to travel yet on this COVID-19 journey together. Continue to wear those masks and practice social distancing. The pandemic virus will most certainly be with us through 2021 and beyond. My sincere hope for next year is we are able to return more of our focus to promoting resilient communities and advancing health for all.
Amy Westbrook is the St. Louis County Public Health Division director. She wrote this exclusively for the News Tribune at the request of the Opinion page.