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Following illness numbers can be a tricky game


April 17, 2020

It can be tempting to fixate on numbers as the coronavirus makes its way through the population near and far. Each day, government agencies faithfully report the number of confirmed cases, the number of dead, the number of those who have recovered and more.

But those numbers don’t always add up, and they don’t tell the full story.

So far, in Carlton County, the majority of confirmed COVID-19 cases is related to the Moose Lake prison, either people incarcerated there or prison employees who work there. But the number of confirmed cases tells only part of the story. A lack of tests means that many who are sick with symptoms of COVID-19 are not tested — and therefore not counted, even if they called a hotline or talked to a doctor — because they’re not in a priority group for testing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says hospitalized patients and health care workers should be at the front of the line for testing. People in long-term care and other congregate living facilities (such as group homes, jails and prisons) should come next. A person living in a single-family home will, in most cases, be told to isolate themselves. Unless they begin to have breathing problems, these people won’t be tested because they won’t end up in the hospital.

Carlton County public information office and public health educator Meghann Levitt said the Minnesota Department of Health investigates each lab-confirmed positive case.

“We know this is only a snapshot of current activity, as community transmission is prevalent and there are many more cases occurring than have been lab tested,” Levitt said in an interview with the Pine Knot News earlier this month.

Just how much the U.S. and other countries are undercounting the number of infected people and deaths due to COVID-19 is unknown.

But practices and procedures are changing as the disease continues to spread. New York City is now including “probable” deaths, people who displayed symptoms but were not tested. The death toll there topped 10,000 on Tuesday, April 14, after city health officials reported 3,778 new fatalities throughout the duration of the pandemic.

In Minnesota, the Department of Corrections is reporting “presumed” cases among the incarcerated but, so far, the Minnesota Department of Health is not including those cases in its daily tally. On Wednesday, the DOC reported a total of 43 confirmed and presumed cases of COVID-19 at its Moose Lake facility. The same day, MDH reported a total of 27 cases in Carlton County.

Levitt expects tracking to get better with time, but encourages people to be patient and keep following the health and safety recommendations.

“MDH and Governor Walz are working with local partners to pursue better ways of tracking cases, down the road, through testing measures,” she said. “Since most cases are mild though, those who have symptoms of COVID-19 are encouraged to stay at home, and not seek medical care unless their symptoms worsen or become unmanageable at home. It is OK not to be tested, and the best prevention right now is to stay home, practice social distancing, wash your hands and cover your cough.”


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