Minnesota health officials assess COVID-19 rally risks beyond Trump

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: President Donald Trump visited Duluth on Wednesday as one of multiple campaign stops in Minnesota that day. The president spoke at Duluth International Airport starting around 8 p.m. He announced early Friday he had tested positive for the coronavirus.

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President Donald Trump visited Duluth on Wednesday as one of multiple campaign stops in Minnesota that day. The president spoke at Duluth International Airport starting around 8 p.m. He announced early Friday he had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Only a select few may have been close enough, long enough, to President Donald Trump to be infected by the coronavirus he is carrying, but health officials urge people who attended Wednesday’s campaign events in Minnesota to watch for symptoms.

The president was far enough from the crowd at a Duluth rally that it’s unlikely he spread the virus to attendees, but the environment presented its own risks for attendees infecting one another, said Amy Westbrook, St. Louis County’s public health director. The city of Duluth had warned that the setup could be problematic and lamented in a statement Friday that “the campaign chose not to comply with state guidelines” for social distancing and mask-wearing.

“With an estimated attendance of at least 3,000 people at the rally, there’s a pretty good likelihood that some of the attendees had the virus and were contagious,” Westbrook said. “So as we would with any event, we strongly encourage participants to quarantine, monitor themselves for symptoms and consider getting tested.”

The spread of COVID-19 appears to have accelerated in Minnesota, where state health leaders on Friday reported another 10 deaths and 1,184 infections — bringing the state’s totals to 2,059 deaths and 101,366 infections. Hospitalizations for the infectious disease have increased — with 358 admissions for COVID-19 in the seven-day period ending Tuesday.

A key state metric, the seven-day positivity rate of diagnostic testing, has risen from 4.4% two weeks ago to 5.3%. That suggests a broader spread of the virus, even though testing activity has increased over the past month and has likely identified more mild infections that might have been missed in the past.

Large group events have helped kick-start the increase in transmission, state health officials said, with an outbreak at a Martin County church and funeral last month contributing to communitywide spread of the virus. The Sept. 9 funeral has been linked to 41 infections, and 15 others have been tied to funeral attendees who likely spread the virus at church services four days later in Fairmont and Truman, and at a local hair salon.

The state on Friday released its first list of outbreaks in schools in which five or more students or staff members were in the buildings while infectious — and three of the seven were in Martin County.

St. Louis County has seen rising community spread of COVID-19 as well — with infections increasing from 409 on Aug. 1 to 1,840 now, and deaths increasing from 18 to 46. That combined with the lack of compliance with COVID-19 mitigation strategies at the Trump rally raises the risk that infections did occur, state infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann said.

“People may not have been socially distant, they may not have been masking and obviously it was a large group,” Ehresmann said.

The state Health Department advises anyone who has been in close contact with the president or staff members who have tested positive for COVID-19 to consider quarantining and limiting contact with others. Any contacts meeting the definition for moderate exposure risk — meaning people who spent 15 minutes within 6 feet of the president — are advised to seek testing and remain quarantined for 14 days regardless of test results.

Several Minnesota Republican leaders announced voluntary quarantines on Friday due to their varying levels of contact with the president and his staff this week.

Ehresmann said the state has not received an attendance list for the Duluth rally it could use to conduct contact tracing to find any high-risk exposures, and a statement from Hennepin County Public Health said it has not received an attendance list from a Shorewood fundraiser for contact tracing either.

Gov. Tim Walz sent a letter earlier this summer to the presidential campaigns of Trump and Joe Biden, asking them to follow state guidelines that encouraged social distancing, limited the size of group gatherings and required indoor mask-wearing.

Compliance was spotty at Trump rallies in Mankato and Bemidji earlier this summer, but state health officials have been noncommittal on whether they would take any enforcement actions against the organizers.

Ehresmann said she didn’t know whether state officials responsible for enforcing COVID-19 safety requirements would take action regarding any lapses at the latest rally.

“Certainly, you know, the governor provided information to event organizers about how to conduct a safe event,” she said. “Other than that, I can’t comment.”

Trump’s infection reflects the ease with which the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 can spread, said Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

The White House strategy of COVID-19 prevention through frequent testing was never going to be an effective barrier compared to “assuming that everyone is infected and taking the steps necessary to assure that they don’t infect someone else,” he said.

“I’m concerned about his exposure to the individuals at the fundraiser in Shorewood as well as the team’s contact — not just him — but the team’s contact with people in Duluth,” Osterholm added. “There clearly were infected, and likely infectious, people at that time.”

Trump’s age and weight increase his risk for severe COVID-19, but even in that demographic, “the majority still end up coming through OK,” said Dr. John O’Horo, an infection prevention and control specialist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. The early detection and wealth of medical resources will make the president’s outcome difficult to compare to someone’s in the general public, he said.

The lesson to the public is that anyone spending so much time close to other people is going to be at an elevated risk and that it takes a combination of masking, social distancing, washing hands and other strategies to reduce that risk, he said.

“For the rest of us, we still have a chance” of avoiding infection, he said. “We just have to make sure we’re not completely reliant on any one layer of protection — since any one layer can fail.”

Reporters Katie Galioto and Christopher Snowbeck contributed to this story.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744


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