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One year later: Positive cases rising again
  • Updated

Just passed one year since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Koochiching County is seeing a rise again in positive cases.

The pandemic is not over, and residents are encouraged to continue to practice mask wearing, social distancing and hand washing, while signing up for a vaccine.

That's the message brought to the county board Tuesday by Kathy LaFrance, director of county Health and Human Services.

From March 16 to Tuesday, seven days, the state reported 10 new positive cases in Koochiching County.

The rise came from local schools. (See accompanying story: Falls schools see increase in COVID-19 positives)

"We were in a nice plateau for a bit, and now there has been a recent rise in cases, among some young people," she said. "It seems to be within a group of young people that hang together."

International Falls High School students returned to in-person learning four days a week March 15 - just one day shy of the one-year anniversary of Falls school closing because of the COVID-19 pandemic. While most Minnesota schools were ordered to close March 18, a district staff member in quarantine pushed Falls schools to take action two days earlier.

The idea that the number of positive cases is rising is not unique to Koochiching County, she said.

"Across the country, we are seeing people not telling folks when their kids are sick. They want them to participate in spring sports, and they're not keeping them home and quarantining," LaFrance said. "That only encourages the spread of the virus."

She again encouraged people to stay home, and keep their children home, if they are sick, and to get tested.

"Testing is still important and very vital to keeping this all under control," she said.

Meanwhile, LaFance encouraged residents to sign up through their provider or the county for a vaccine.

She reported the state has told her Koochiching County should be getting 100 doses each week going forward.

"We are really hoping that is able to happen, as we can continue to run a clinic every week and get vaccines out," she said, adding people need to register to get a vaccination at  https://prepmod.health.state.mn.us//reg/0126055290 .

She reiterated that providing insurance information is optional, as no one is charged for the vaccine.

The county will not keep a list of people waiting for the vaccine any longer, she said, adding people need to go to the above link to register to get the vaccine.

"But even though the vaccine it out and people are getting it, it's really important to wear masks, socially distance and wash hands," she said.

Veterans program

In other business, the board authorized Veterans Service Officer Mark Lessard to apply for a Together with Veterans, Rural Veteran Suicide Prevention Program grant.

Should the 3-year grant be awarded, it would be used to establish a county veteran suicide awareness and prevention project, that the VSO would supervise, facilitate and administer with the support of a volunteer steering committee. The committee would be made up of mostly of veterans as well as other interested community members and partners.

Commissioner Wade Pavleck, a veteran, agreed such a program is needed, with Lessard noting that veterans have markedly higher suicide rates than non-veterans.

He said since he began the VSO job in 2019, he's become aware suicide itself impacts the community, with veterans at an elevated risk.

Lessard told the board that while the program would target veterans, it would benefit the entire county by raising awareness of suicide among everyone.

Other business

The board agreed to send a letter of support to Minnesota lawmakers for the continued funding for broadband projects throughout the state, as requested by Koochiching Technology Initiative.

The request was brought to the board by Jaci Nagle, county Information Services director, and vice chair of KTI, who said consistent and stable funding of the grant program is important to allow economic development agencies, local governments and others to be creative and collaborative in their approach to providing broadband services.

Pavleck noted that people have left Koochiching County because the internet speed available was too slow for them to work remotely here.

Commissioner Terry Murray added that having high speed internet available is vital to home sales in the area.

The board acknowledged recognition by state Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead of county staff for perfect performance in meeting the Department of Human Services financial reporting requirements for calendar year 2020.

Murray, who worked for years as the county public health director, credited staff for achieving the high standard. He said he knows it's not an easy task and plays a large role in county reimbursements from state and federal sources.

LaFrance said the recognition speaks highly of the supervisor and team, giving kudos also to the department.

Also Tuesday, the board approved a a compensation settlement for 2021 for non-union management and hourly employee groups with 2-percent cost of living increases, and some revised position descriptions.

There was no increase in the county board salary for 2021.

The board acknowledge the donation to Public Health from Susan Anderson of eight infant quilts to be given to new moms through the county's Healthy Child program.


Sports
On to spring

As of Saturday, the winter sports season in Borderland has officially come to a close.

After contending with a shortened regular season due to COVID, the seven sport teams of Falls and Littlefork-Big Falls High Schools competed in their respective playoffs.

The results of said playoffs ran the gamut of possibilities, including first-round exits, a quarterfinal appearance and some athletes getting the chance to compete on the state stage.

More information on how many of these teams ended their season can be found starting on B1.


Public_safety
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State officials urge border opening
  • Updated

A letter dated March 12 to U.S President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urges them to work together to safely reopen the U.S-Canadian border, now closed for more than one year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On March 18, Canada Border Services Agency announced on its Facebook page: Discretionary (non-essential) travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada  ave been extended to April 21, 2021. It provided the following link: http://ow.ly/V9Hk50E1lNB

The announcement is the latest in a year of extensions to the closure.

The bipartisan letter is signed by 19 members of the Minnesota Legislature, including local lawmakers Sen. Tom Bakk and Rep. Rob Ecklund.

“Having the U.S-Canadian border open is fundamental to our economy in northern Minnesota,” said Bakk in a statement. “The commerce between both countries helps support communities and Main Street businesses on both sides of the border. I signed this bipartisan letter to make sure the voice of northern Minnesotans is being heard. We need to get our economy back as quickly as possible from the devastation of the pandemic and to do that we need to safely reopen the border.”

The letter reports a $7.1 billion travel spending loss due to the border closure.

It also notes that in 2017, the Canadian Consulate reported Canadians made 703,000 trips to Minnesota, spending $195 million in local economies.

Minnesotans spend $208 million in travel service to Canada each year, said the letter.

"Reopening in time (for) the spring and summer travel seasons is a priority to ensure northern Minnesota Main Streets can survive the pandemic," the letter said.

Earlier letter

The letter from state lawmakers follows a letter in late January signed by Congressman Pete Stauber and other members urging the president to prioritize working with the Canadian government to increase the number of essential traveler exceptions to current border restrictions and establish a plan, guided by public health metrics, upon which the U.S.-Canada land border will be re-opened to non-essential travel.

In July, Stauber visited businesses impacted by the closure. He had just announced his appointment to serve on the Canada-United States Interparliamentary Group, which was created to exchange information and promote better understanding between U.S. and Canadian legislators on common programs and concerns.

Meanwhile, the letter from members of Congress said Americans face more stringent border crossing rules than Canadians do.

"Families in border communities have faced unique hardship while they have been unable to cross the land border to reconnect with the loved ones on the other side," said the letter, noting that Canada has expanded its exemptions to allow family members and extended family members to enter Canada, while the U.S. has not reciprocated.

In addition, the letter points out that recreational boaters, normally allowed to leave a U.S. port and return, without checking in provided they do not set foot on Canadian soil, is now prohibited by Canada. While at the same time Canada Border Protection has continued to allow Canadian boaters to transit through U.S. waters during the pandemic as long as they don’t anchor, dock, or tie up.

"This has been particularly impactful in the boat tourism industry, where Canadian operators have been able to take their tour boats along the U.S. coast while American tour boats have not been able to travel similar routes along the Canadian coast," the letter said. "Additionally, enforcement of the policies remains unclear and inconsistent."

Restrictions

Canada has some of the strictest travel and border measures, including a 14-day mandatory quarantine for everyone returning to the country, and in February made them even stricter.

Travelers visiting Canada by land are required to provide proof of a negative COVID test taken in the U.S. within 72 hours before arrival (or a positive test taken 14-90 days prior to arrival). And starting Feb. 22, visitors needed to take a COVID-19 test when they arrive and at the end of their 14-day quarantine.

Canada Border Services Agency offers two online checklists online for people who want to enter Canada:

  • Flying to Canada requirements checklist
  • Driving to Canada requirements checklist

Using the applicable online checklist leads the user through a series of questions to help identify who can travel to Canada. It also identifies new testing and quarantine requirements when coming to Canada.

CBSA also reminds travelers they may not now enter Canadian waters for optional reasons, such as:

  • touring
  • sightseeing
  • pleasure fishing

Boaters may still navigate through international or Canadian waters while in transit directly from one place outside Canada to another place outside Canada, if the transit is:

  • direct
  • continuous/uninterrupted
  • by the most reasonable route

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Local
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Falls schools see increase in COVID-19 positives
  • Updated

International Falls school superintendent issued an email plea Monday to continue to practice safety protocols as number of positive COVID-19 cases climbs.

And he noted, state officials encourage families to test students every 2 weeks.

Superintendent Kevin Grover told district families that ISD reported several additional cases at Falls High School and one at Falls Elementary School since last week.

“...we had several additional cases at Falls High School since my last message on Thursday bring the current total to 11 students/staff at FHS and one student at FES that have tested positive for COVID-19,” he reported. “The majority of these cases appear to be linked to a common group. All close contacts were contacted prior to this message.”

He urged families to enforce quarantine if their child has been directed, in order to help stop the spread and not jeopardize the in-person learning along with upcoming activities.

And Grover asked that everyone continue to mask, wash hands, and distance as much as possible.

High School students March 15 transitioned from a two-day a week hybrid model to in person classes on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. Wednesday’s will continue to be distance learning day for all with a homeroom check in.

Grover reported that the Minnesota Departments of Education and Health encourage students and families to voluntarily test for COVID-19 every two weeks.

The district offers saliva testing for employees, and Grover notes that free saliva tests can be ordered from the state at this link Vault: No-Cost COVID Testing For All Minnesotans

To help with convenience students can complete the test and drop it in the office every other Tuesday, starting this Tuesday. The student’s at home tests can be shipped with the district’s tests on Wednesday — every other week.

“This would save you from having to go to a shipping location,” Grover said. adding that anyone with questions should ask.


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