A report by the New York Times updated on Tuesday listed Fergus Falls as the second fastest city in the nation for the spread of COVID-19. The chart sorts cities by the difference between the number of cases in the past week compared with the week prior. By that metric, according to the New York Times, Fergus Falls had a change of 638 cases per 100,000 people this week. The city with the fastest growth was Abilene, Texas, with 649 and Marshall, Texas, the third fastest with 624.
While the chart says it’s limited to areas with at least 50,000 people, Fergus Falls has a population of only about 14,000 people. Toni Monkovic, staff editor of the New York Times, said that the report is going by “official metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas.” According to the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Census Bureau, the Fergus Falls micropolitan statistical area is all of Otter Tail County.
Jody Lien, Otter Tail County Public Health director, said that, although she isn’t sure what data The New York Times is using exactly or what time periods they’re drawing from, “If you try to match point in time, when you look at this being Otter Tail County data, ... when you look at per 100,000, it looks fairly accurate.”
She says Otter Tail County isn’t unique and that this is a trend occurring throughout Minnesota as a whole. “I think, overall, Otter Tail County as well as West Central Minnesota, we’re seeing exponential growth,” Lien said. “Our case rates per 10,000 or per 100,000 are not in a place that we want to see them. So how we managed to be the county called out on The New York Times — but I do see throughout the day other cities in Minnesota are growing on that.”
Lien also doesn’t want people to think that this rapid growth in positive cases is simply a result of increased testing. Positivity rate of testing is an important factor that health professionals look at to determine an outbreak and Otter Tail County had a test positivity rate of 8.9% last week. “We know we have broad community spread of viral transmission when we’re above 5%,” she says. “So we were at 8.9%. I would anticipate again, Thursday, when we look at that weekly report that MDH puts out, that we’ll be increased again. Yes, we’re testing more, but we’re testing more because we have more virus present in our community.”
With Thanksgiving on the horizon, there’s concern that the exponential growth the county is seeing will only get worse. Gov. Tim Walz and state health officials, including Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm, have urged Minnesotans to stay home for the holiday and only gather with people in your immediate household.
“If we want to do a compare and contrast, as we walk through contact investigations, contact tracing, Halloween gatherings have affected our numbers locally. I would anticipate, if people do choose to gather for Thanksgiving, we will see the ripple effect of that as well,” Lien said. The infection period for the virus begins two days before symptoms do, so someone might feel fine on Thanksgiving Day and then begin to feel ill on Saturday, having unwittingly exposed their whole family to the virus.
“I understand, even personally, that there’s a desire when we have the holidays to gather, and it’s really unfortunately a sacrifice that we really do need our families and communities to make right now, is to delay that and not gather,” Lien said.