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ENDING THE PANDEMIC: Health leaders emphasize testing and other measures to help slow spread of COVID variants

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Woman gets Moderna vaccine at Rochester Community Pharmacy

ROCHESTER, Minn. (KTTC) -- Thursday, Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) announced almost 2,000 new cases of COVID-19 and 10 deaths in the state.

The UK variant B.1.1.7 makes up 60 percent of COVID-19 cases in Minnesota. It's proving more contagious and has resulted in increased cases across all age groups. The most concerning group is in school age children. Most of that age group is still not able to get a vaccine.

"We are at 69 percent of everyone 16 and older in Olmsted County has now received at least one dose of vaccine," said Graham Briggs, Olmsted County Public Health Director.

With more than half of those eligible fully vaccinated, the county is at an odd stage. There are more vaccine doses available than people willing to take it.

"Our case rates seem to be plateauing right now. We're currently seeing about 24 Olmsted residents diagnosed with COVID every day," Briggs said.

We're not yet at the herd immunity threshold.

"If you've been waiting on vaccination because you wanted high-risk people to get their vaccine, thank you for doing that but it's now your turn," said Dr. Melanie Swift, Mayo COVID vaccine distribution co-chair.

Swift says she speaks with many people who are reluctant to get the vaccine.

"Listening to people, understanding their concerns and then providing fact-based information to address those concerns," Swift said.

It's not just the older population anymore at risk anymore. The average age of those hospitalized is now much younger at 59 years.

Children are also being impacted.

"In the last week, we have had 11 admissions, five to our pediatric care unit. Three of those kids are really sick," said Dr. Brooke Moore, pediatric pulmonologist. "This is double what we've seen on average in the last couple months."

"A common misconception is still with us," MDH commissioner Jan Malcolm said. "If kids get COVID-19, it's not a big deal because they don't get very sick."

Another concern is asymptomatic spread. Kids can feel fine but spread the virus without knowing.

Since there is no vaccine available for those younger than 16, MDH is recommending testing for students every two weeks and every week if they play sports.

"These tests are going to be free for our students, schools and sports teams. The state of Minnesota will provide test kits and resources for any high school or organized sports team that will offer tests to students or sports participants," said Heather Mueller, Minnesota Department of Education commissioner.

Malcolm advises everyone to continue to follow appropriate health guidelines, saying the pandemic is not quite over yet.

"This is not the time to let down our guard," the MDH commissioner urges. "This is the time to finish strong."

Clinical trials for the Pfizer vaccine showed it was effective in those 12 to 15 and should soon be available for that group. It does not yet have emergency use authorization.

Alex Tejada

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