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Houghton County hears COVID-19 update

HOUGHTON — Houghton County’s emergency measures director briefed the county board on mobilization efforts against COVID-19 during Tuesday’s meeting. 

A second positive case was confirmed in Houghton County Monday, making it the sixth in the five-county area, said Chris Van Arsdale. The other four are from Gogebic County. 

As of Tuesday night, there were 12 pending tests and 111 negative tests. 

The county is in the fourth or fifth week of its operations center, which supports the health department’s efforts and coordinates with other agencies, such as law enforcement, fire, Mercy EMS and the Houghton County Road Commission. 

One drive is acquiring personal protective equipment (PPE). Local agencies have put in 47 requests to the state, Van Arsdale said. No equipment has come directly from those requests, VanArsdale said. However, other counties that received more than they asked for have shared some of that with Houghton County. 

A joint information system launched last week, resurrecting the Copper Country Strong website from the 2018 floods to disseminate information. The website is being used jointly with the four other counties in the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department. 

In addition to sharing local stories, the bulletin is also knocking down rumors (such as the one circulating that police will be pulling drivers over on suspicion of violating the state’s stay-at-home order), VanArsdale said.

People with questions can email Van Arsdale at oem@houghtoncounty.net or the site at coppercountrystrong@gmail.com. 

The announcement of the second positive case came via the release of a graphic from the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department; as with the first case, there was no additional information released. The health department announced after the first case it would not individually announce additional confirmed positives.

That lack of information had drawn concern from at least one resident who had reached out to Commissioner Tom Tikkanen. They had wanted to hear additional information about where that person is or what places they may have frequented. 

“Do you feel there’s any opportunity for further release or greater clarification on these positive tests?” he said. 

Van Arsdale said privacy was one concern; with the Keweenaw being a small area, people might be able to determine a person’s identity with only a small amount of information. Also, he had, announcing locations where a person who tested positive had been could also encourage people to be complacent about COVID-19 risk in other locations.

“If you go in public, you should assume that you can make contact with someone,” he said. “We only have two confirmed positive cases, but it’s possible there are others out there we don’t know about.”

When someone tests positive, the health department talks to the patient and finds out where they’ve been in the past five days and the people with whom they were in contact. Those people are then contacted and told to seek medical attention if they show symptoms. Even if they do not, they should quarantine themselves for 14 days. 

“They would contact their employer, for example, and say, ‘This person was there because they were an essential employee, and therefore you all were exposed,'” Van Arsdale said. 

Apple and Google are collaborating on a system to assist in contact tracing, Van Arsdale said. Their system would use Bluetooth signals from smartphones to identify contacts traditional methods might miss, according to National Public Radio. 

The health department is working on developing some local testing facilities, Van Arsdale said. Most tests have been processed at state labs, which have been up to 2,000 or more tests per day. Up until this week, tests were available only to a health care worker who has been exposed and is showing symptoms, a person in an at-risk population who is showing symptoms, and responders who have been exposed but not showing symptoms. 

The state expanded testing to allow people with mild symptoms to be tested if they have a doctor’s order. 

So far, there have been enough testing materials for everyone who qualifies, Van Arsdale said. 

For people in the top tier, there has been a lag time for getting test results of one to two days, Van Arsdale said. A day of that was due to shipping.  

“They are working on bringing some more local test-processing facilities online, and I think you’ll see that next week,” he said. “That could reduce the time down to a day.”

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