Beltrami County: Free Testing and Covid-19 Update

Oct 1, 2020

This is an interview with Cynthia Borgen, Director of Beltrami County Public Health, that took place Wednesday September 30. She spoke with Northern Community Radio’s Maggie Montgomery and Dan Houg about free testing that continues Thursday October 1st at the Bemidji Armory until 6 p.m. and the status of Covid-19 infections in Beltrami County

Maggie Montgomery:

Tell us about the COVID-19 testing that's going on at the armory in Bemidji.  

Cynthia Borgen:

Right. The Minnesota Department of Health, the state Emergency Operation Center and the National Guard have brought up staff and expertise and supplies and set up yesterday at the armory. We had 403 people go through and be tested yesterday. So we we're excited that the site will operate today and tomorrow, as you mentioned, from noon until six.

MaggieMontgomery:

Who should go to be tested?

Cynthia Borgen:

Well, this is an opportunity for all those folks who are just curious. I think, you know, we've just started school. There's been lots of large rallies in the community. People who are concerned that they might currently have COVID. This is an opportunity for folks, even those who don't know that they've been in contact with someone who's positive or don't have symptoms. This is their chance to go and get tested.

Maggie Montgomery:

This is kind of big news because as far as I know, this is the first time that a free testing like this has been available in the Bemidji community.

Cynthia Borgen:

It is. We had talked about offering community testing back in July when we were having a big surge, but by the time we started to really think it through our numbers seemed to be moderated again. And from the people that we talked to, most folks who needed to be testing were able to access testing in the community.

This is part of the governor's surge of testing. We're one of 26 sites across the state that's offering testing. They started last week and will go for a couple more weeks just to make sure that that people who are who are concerned about their COVID status have the ability to go in and get tested without worrying about insurance or any other thing like that.

Maggie Montgomery:

What can people expect when they go to the armory today?

Cynthia Borgen:

They'll drive up, they'll be directed as to where to park. They'll walk around to the back of the facility and get in one of two lines. If they're registered already, they'll kind of go through and just check in quick. If they have not pre-registered, then they'll take care of that and move people through.

As I said, there's two lanes that people will go through. They'll have a seat and a trained health professional will take a little swab and swap out the inside of both nostrils. So it's not the one that reaches way deep into your nasal cavity.

So they swap out the nostrils. They take a little bit of information from you so that they can reach you. And then the folks are on their way. They need to leave a phone number and/or email address. Then the tests are all packaged up, sent down to either the university of Minnesota or to Mayo for processing. And then as soon as those results are known, if it's a positive, someone will give them a call and let them know that they're positive, let them know what they need to do around isolating themselves, and around identifying who their close contacts are, and encouraging those folks to quarantine. Those who are negative will get either a text message or an email where there's a link that they can go to to verify that those are indeed their results. That's all.

Dan Houg:

What kind of turnaround time can we expect?

Cynthia Borgen:

They work really hard to get everybody's results back within 48 hours. Typically 72 hours. It seems to be about the latest that they go, by having a partnership with the two different labs. They can send the test to whichever lab has the most capacity for testing right now, so that they can try to get things done quickly. But their goal is to always get those results back to people within 48 hours.

Dan Houg:

Is there any plan to repeat this in communities across the state?

Cynthia Borgen:

Well, there's always that potential. There's another strategy that the governor has going where he's setting up 10, what they're calling semi-permanent sites, where they'll be using saliva as the testing medium. So far, they've got one of those set up in Duluth, and there'll be looking at a variety of other locations across the state to set those up. And those will operate for several months

They've been working with Vault lab that has come up with this way of testing. I mean, as we've seen with COVID, this is something brand new. And so a variety of laboratories have been working on developing a variety of tests. Vault labs came up with this way of using saliva. The tests appear to be very accurate when they actually take the test. It's a monitored test, but the individual just spits into a funnel, which goes into a little tube, but it is monitored so that they can instruct the individual about just how to do it, to help make sure that they get the right amounts or right mix. The state is working on opening up a lab next month. Right now the specimens are all sent out to the Vault lab, but in another month, we'll have a lab available here.

And by then the plan is that these other nine sites will have been opened up. And that will also increase ongoing testing. So back to the original question about whether we'll do additional community testing here, it really depends on what our situation looks like.

Maggie Montgomery:

I've heard about things called rapid tests. What are they? And are they available?

Cynthia Borgen:

Rapid tests are available at healthcare facilities. So Sanford, Red Lake, they have at least one, if not two different types of rapid tests available, which they use for individuals that they're concerned may need to be hospitalized. When folks go into the hospital, the healthcare facilities of course want to make sure that they know if they have COVID so they can Institute the appropriate precautions. So for individuals who show up at the hospital who are quite sick, they may get a rapid test at whatever facility they show up at. And those have not shown to be quite as specific as the PCR test, the one that they have to send away to the labs, but they seem to work very well for the purposes that they're used for.

Dan Houg:

Kind of for the first time, both Maggie and I are seeing, or knowing actually, knowing people in the community now that are COVID positive and actually have symptoms. What are you seeing for our community?

Cynthia Borgen:

Well, our numbers have really ramped up this last couple of weeks. We had 80 positive cases last week. That was the highest case number that we've had ever. And we're continuing to see those numbers ramping up. And we would have expected that, you know, September is one of those months where a lot of people change their patterns. They move from that summer pattern to the fall pattern. And that means mixing with a lot of different people. We know that it's out there in the community. And so as you mix with new groups of people everyone's exposed. And if you're not careful with your physical distancing and wearing masks and keeping up with your hand hygiene, you'll be exposed. And there's a chance that you would contract COVID.

Maggie Montgomery:

There's school starting, Labor Day, there was a big political rally, there've been weddings. How is the spreading taking place?

Cynthia Borgen:

Well, we currently are working on a cluster that is associated with a wedding and we've identified over 10 people that had been it appears that that's where they contracted COVID. Our information is as good as what people are willing to share with us. And that's always a challenge. When we talk to people, we want to make sure that they have the information that they need to keep themselves safe. We try to identify where they may have been exposed, and then we try to identify who they may have exposed. So we do talk about, you know, events that they may have attended. And most of the time people are very truthful and they really want to help you, because the way we can slow the spread is by identifying the people who've been exposed and get them into quarantine, or encourage them to self-quarantine so that they're not then exposing others. That's kind of the whole goal of what we're working on, is to keep people who maybe have been exposed from getting out there and exposing a new group of people.

Maggie Montgomery:

The virus has been really politicized and we heard a news story this morning that, I think it was a traditional Jewish group in New York City that are asking others in their group not to be tested. In our area, is there any of that going on; any reluctance like that?

Cynthia Borgen:

Well, the people that I work with are the people that are coming in and getting tested.

Maggie Montgomery:

So you're seeing the exact opposite

Cynthia Borgen:

But again, you know, I would have to imagine that there are people who are concerned. I mean, the numbers that we have are used for planning for our schools, for our long-term care facilities. So we of course would hope that we have the most accurate numbers that we can so that we can plan for this. I think what we've heard is people say, well, if nobody knows, then we can continue to operate like we want. The problem is that this disease can make people really sick. And that's the concern is that if  some folks continue to go out and about when they're symptomatic and they could potentially have COVID, they might be exposing other people who are really high risk for negative health outcomes.

Maggie Montgomery:

How does Beltrami County…you said the numbers were really up. How is it comparing to, say, the state as a whole in where the numbers are going?

Cynthia Borgen:

Well, we're one of many counties who's experiencing a surge of cases right now. The number of cases across the state is at a record high. We're also at a record high. So we're right in there with many other counties.

Maggie Montgomery:

So do you ever get tired of telling people to mask up?

Cynthia Borgen:

(Laughs) Well, I wish I had a new and exciting way to share those requests, but we really don't. I mean, people need to be thoughtful about making decisions every day about whether their behaviors are riskier for contracting COVID or our lower risk. And then we always encourage people to avoid large crowds, you know, try to hang out with the same groups of people. Really work on that social distancing as a critical component. And masking is one that overall I see people are really trying to follow. And that appears to really be helping. Again, one thing that we see in a numbers is that there's a lot of transmission that happens within households, and there's really not good ways to do that. I mean, you need to be close to your family and it's really challenging.

And it's, you know, it's no one's fault that they, that they contract COVID. What we would ask is if they are symptomatic, that they find out if it is COVID. And if it is that, then do their best to stay isolated. If they've exposed their family, then you need to keep your family home and quarantine your family members. And it's hard to do. And I mean, even I had a concern that I was exposed at a large family gathering over the summer and was potentially symptomatic and it's like, ‘Oh, I can't go to work.’ I have to work from home and get a COVID test. And so I did those things and it was really hard. It's hard to do. It's hard to take those steps because everyone needs to go to work and you want your life to be normal - but this is a pandemic.

And when we look back to the last major global pandemic we had, even going back to the pandemic flu that we had in 1918 and 1919, it took a couple of years to work your way through it. And many people died. So it's going to be another year before everyone has access to a vaccine that can help us get to a point where we can go back to a little bit more normal. So yeah, it is a real challenge. It's just not normal times right now. We have to be a little more careful. And what we're seeing is there's just a lot of COVID out there. It spreads readily. And yeah, if to protect yourself, you need to avoid crowds and wear your mask.

Dan Houg:

Will the precautions people are taking have an impact on influenza that that will be starting to ramp up seasonally?

Cynthia Borgen:

Well, we really hope so. It appears that that's what happened in the Southern hemisphere, where they had, at least in the spring, they had pretty low rates of flu, but things were shut down pretty tight during that time. Influenza is even - and I guess I was going to say it's more contagious, but I guess I don't know that for sure. We certainly hope that the behaviors that people are practicing to avoid spreading COVID will also help in the spread of influenza. But with the flu, we have a vaccine and it's not totally...we have maybe a 50 to 60% rate of that vaccine, you know, helping to keep flu from spreading. I got my flu shot this week. I encourage everyone to get a flu shot. If we can ramp up that rate of flu vaccines, that will help to avoid having people be sick with both flu and COVID, that could really stress our healthcare system if we can keep people from getting the flu.

Maggie Montgomery: Is the capacity in Beltrami County...I know Sanford is the hospital here. How are they doing in terms of capacity?

Cynthia Borgen:

The hospital or ICU, for treating people…Well, early on they made some major changes to their hospital. They changed the fourth floor so that it's available for holding many more patients in ICU than what they used to have. So right now, what we've seen is we have residents from around the region who are being hospitalized in Sanford, because again, they've established a floor where they can appropriately take care of a large number of patients who need those extra COVID precautions, but also need some who need that intensive care as well, because of the serious outcomes of COVID.

Maggie Montgomery:

You know, this is so hard because we want to spend time with our families. We want to mark passages like weddings and funerals, and it's very hard to stay on your toes all the time. And I think people are maybe just getting a little bit worn out, but these numbers are concerning.

Cynthia Borgen:

Well, I know that I'm getting a little bit worn out, but there are ways to do it. I mean, I know several people who had weddings and there hasn't been any transmission that's occurred. I mean, we know enough about the disease that if things are set up appropriately and people are reminded about wearing their masks… I mean, I've seen some pretty fancy masks that people have developed to just get into the recognition that we need to wear them. Let's make them be something that's fun to wear. So yeah, it is a real challenge. But you know, this is not normal time. This is COVID pandemic time, and it's going to be a little while where we're still going to need to work our way through it. And it's hard for everyone.

Cynthia Borgen is Director of Beltrami County Public Health

There is still free testing today at the Bemidji Armory until 6 p.m. No appointment is needed!