While the Wadena-Deer Creek Schools are doing better with COVID-19 cases, Superintendent Lee Westrum said the community transmission is high and the hospital is full.

Over the past week, the elementary school had six cases and the middle/high school had two cases. In October, the middle/high school was in a two-week required masking period following the district’s mitigation plan.

Wadena-Deer Creek school board members approved a mitigation matrix for the 2021-22 school year on Sept. 21, 2021. The matrix shows when masking changes would come based on the percentage of positive COVID-19 cases at each school. 
Contributed / Wadena-Deer Creek Schools
Wadena-Deer Creek school board members approved a mitigation matrix for the 2021-22 school year on Sept. 21, 2021. The matrix shows when masking changes would come based on the percentage of positive COVID-19 cases at each school. Contributed / Wadena-Deer Creek Schools

“We are, in our area, experiencing very high numbers (of COVID-19 cases),” Westrum shared with school board members on Monday, Nov. 22. “I don’t think by any means that we’re out of the woods.”

The COVID-19 cases have “climbed significantly” over the fall, as Tri-County Health Care president and CEO Joel Beiswenger said. As of Nov. 22, Wadena County had 192 cases per 10,000 people.

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“Everything that you all went through last year with your MDH, MDE standards is when you hit 50 cases per 10,000 was the top of your scale when remote learning and those sorts of things kick(ed) in,” Beiswenger said. In the 2020-21 school year, schools transitioned between in-person, hybrid and remote learning depending on county case rates. “We’re about four times that standard so that in and of itself should say a lot for us.”

In comparison to last year’s fall surge, patients in the hospital are a wider range of ages as the elderly have a higher percentage of receiving the vaccine. The hospital typically has 7-8 patients in the hospital and now has 14-22 patients over the last 10 weeks. Between 40-60% of patients are COVID-19 positive. Statewide hospital bed capacity is full at 95%.

RELATED: COVID surge: Wadena County leads again, not in a good way

The full hospital also affects non-COVID patients, including patients who are normally transferred to other hospitals like cardiac and stroke cases. Recently, Tri-County was using every oxygen device available and if another patient needed one of the devices the ethics committee would face the difficult decision of who would receive the oxygen device as part of their care.

“It just means that if something goes wrong they’re not in the best place and don’t have the best time opportunity,” Beiswenger said. “That’s the part that scares us significantly on a day in and day out basis.”

Beiswenger called the current surge a “bit of the surge of the unvaccinated population.” Wadena County has a vaccination rate of 44.3% of the population receiving at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. Beiswenger urged people to receive the vaccine, wear masks, avoid large crowds and get tested and stay home if you are sick.

The hospital expects this high level of cases will continue for the next six to eight weeks into January.

Vaccine mandate discussion

The federal vaccine mandate with emergency temporary standards from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is paused with a lawsuit in the federal court of appeals. The district does fall under the category of 100 or more employees, which would require a vaccine policy. They are preparing for what could come but are waiting for the court to make their decision and additional Minnesota School Boards Association guidance.

The standard would state employees must be vaccinated or be tested weekly and wear a mask if they are not vaccinated. The district will have testing available at the school and encourage testing at the Wadena Armory for as long as it is available. The free rapid testing site is scheduled to be open through December. The district received a testing grant for $57,000.

Board members agreed the option of testing was beneficial. Westrum said he is unsure of how many staff members would leave due to the mandate. Following an employee testing positive, there is a period of 90 days where they do not have to test weekly due to the varying levels of natural immunity people have after being infected with COVID-19.

At Tri-County, the hospital also follows rules from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, including a vaccine mandate. Health care facilities who have these programs must have their policies, along with staff receiving at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, by Dec. 5. CMS regularly puts out rules and Beiswenger expects this one will remain, though there are several state lawsuits.

Tri-County is not deciding to put in place their own rules but are required to follow the CMS regulations, as Beiswenger said.

For staff members who receive medical and religious exemptions and are not vaccinated, they will be required to wear N95 masks. Beiswenger said Tri-County will not use testing because the turnaround time varies, there are testing supply shortages and the tests only show a moment in time. He added staffing will be lost due to the rule.