Update: This story was updated to reflect new information from McLeod County regarding COVID-19 tests.
These are strange times. In order to practice social distancing, the McLeod County Board met digitally Tuesday in a special meeting to discuss COVID-19 response updates.
Speaking while on webcam, McLeod County Board Chair Joe Nagel said the county is working to keep residents safe and meet the needs of essential personnel providing needed services. He noted that cases of COVID-19 have been found in all surrounding counties.
"We can assume it is here," he said.
Meghan Mohs, interim director for McLeod County Health and Human Services told board members a case is likely to be confirmed in the county soon.
"It won't be a surprise," she said. "The Minnesota Department of Health is predicting a significant impact of COVID-19 in our community. We will have many, many cases if their projections bear out."
The impact will not be on the scale of New York City or Italy, Mohs said, but it will be significant. But state and local health officials are prepared "as much as one can be."
"We have been planning for and exercising this specific scenario for years," Mohs said. "We have a pandemic response in McLeod County."
Practice exercises for a pandemic included first responders teaming up with county officials. Response plans have been further fine-tuned thanks to information from places already facing a high number of serious cases. But, Mohs said, preparation doesn't mean there will be no cases or deaths.
"We will have both," she said, "but it doesn't mean we aren't mitigating as much as possible."
Overall, the county has done well at mitigation. Social distancing has been largely observed, as it has in the state. Traffic on rural Minnesota roads has decreased by 71 percent.
"We have to keep this up to give our hospitals time to expand capacity," Mohs said, noting that efforts in Minnesota have kept it from being considered among the next major hot spots.
COVID-19 tests are available for prioritized health care workers, inpatients, skilled nursing and congregate living staff and emergency response personnel. There is no testing for ambulatory patients outside of those groups per instructions from the Minnesota Department of Health.
Laurie Snegosky, who is acting as the incident commander for the county's emergency response, told board members the county's command structure was in place and regularly in contact with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Minnesota Department of Health and Minnesota Department of Human Services, as well as local law enforcement, health care providers, hospitals, assisted living facilities and schools.
If the state confirms a COVID-19 case in McLeod County, four county staff members on the response team will be notified the night before it is made public. They will likely learn if the case came from local contact or from travel, and the age of the person who contracted COVID-19.
"We may not know more information," Snegosky said. "We will share that information with the administration, they will share that with commissioners, that will go out to the county staff and we will send a public information release."
News would be expected to reach the public before an official announcement from the state the next morning.
McLeod County Emergency Management director Kevin Mathews said the county is working to gather enough personal protective equipment for jail staff, law enforcement, county health workers and others who must interact with the public throughout the county.
"This is kind of a limited supply," he said.
Needs include masks, gowns and gloves, and use is being prioritized as there is a shortage.
"The resources that we're bringing in isn't enough to meet the demands of our community," Mathews said.
The state's emergency operations center has two phone numbers residents may want to be aware of. Questions about what is essential or allowed during Gov. Tim Walz' stay at home order can be directed to 800-657-3504. Health questions can be directed to 800-657-3903.