MOORHEAD — Saying COVID-19 is now “spreading exponentially” in Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz said there is still a "window of hope" to beat the virus back.

Walz met with COVID-19 survivors at the Hjemkomst Center on Wednesday, Oct. 28, to hear their stories and discuss the importance of Minnesota and North Dakota communities and governments working together to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“Minnesota is at a really critical juncture," Walz said. "Some of our early preliminary data from our new saliva lab is showing infection rates up here above 20%. Of course 5% is where you start to lose control, and 10% is uncontrolled community spread. Twenty and above is, you’re going to know someone who gets sick."

By coupling North Dakota's robust testing program with Minnesota’s mitigation strategies, including contact tracing and mandating masks, community spread could be slowed. “This is not a North Dakota or a Minnesota problem, we are in this together,” he said.

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Clay County Public Health is working closely with the Red River COVID-19 Task Force and North Dakota health agencies to quickly notify close contacts and those who test positive for COVID-19, said Liz Bjur, a public health nurse who spoke at the meeting.

A current danger is that the coronavirus is spreading rapidly throughout rural areas, putting staff at risk in smaller health departments, Walz said. In response, the state of Minnesota has “strike teams” to fill in the gaps, but if the spread is not slowed, then continued responses to the coronavirus will falter, he said.

“This has now tipped out of the metro area and much more in Greater Minnesota where the workforce is much narrower,” Walz said. “This is going to be a challenging six to 12 weeks in Minnesota and in the Dakotas.”

Personal protective equipment is “still hard to get,” Walz said, but he plans on creating “the most robust testing in the country” in the next week or so with saliva labs and quick 15-minute testing stations.

Walz said the state of Minnesota plans to target 18- to 35-year-olds, a demographic hit hard by the coronavirus in Minnesota and North Dakota, with expanded access to testing to slow the spread. Officials are focusing on that age group because of “their social nature, they’re out more and they’re more likely to be asymptomatic,” said Dan Huff, assistant commissioner of Minnesota's Health Protection Bureau.

Dan Huff, assistant commissioner of Minnesota's Health Protection Bureau, speaks at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead on Wednesday, Oct. 28. C.S. Hagen / The Forum
Dan Huff, assistant commissioner of Minnesota's Health Protection Bureau, speaks at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead on Wednesday, Oct. 28. C.S. Hagen / The Forum

The 14-day per capita positive case count in Cass County, which includes Fargo, showed 122.6 positives per 10,000 people, the North Dakota Department of Health reported Wednesday.

Clay County, which includes Moorhead, had 59 positive cases per 10,000 people as of Oct. 10, which was the most recent data available.

On Wednesday, Walz and health officials listened to the stories of two survivors of COVID-19 still struggling with sick family members and their own continued health problems.

Kenton Chromey, a fire investigator, discussing his family's fight against COVID-19 with Gov. Tim Walz on Wed., Oct. 28, at the Hjemkomst Center. C.S. Hagen / The Forum
Kenton Chromey, a fire investigator, discussing his family's fight against COVID-19 with Gov. Tim Walz on Wed., Oct. 28, at the Hjemkomst Center. C.S. Hagen / The Forum

Kenton Chromey, a fire investigator in Fargo, lives in Moorhead. In September, Chromey set up an outdoor, socially distanced fundraising event for a family whose house burned down. Three days after the event a handful of people he knew started showing symptoms. Chromey began running a fever of 101 degrees, which worsened and didn’t abate for 15 days.

Ten days later, his in-laws’ symptoms worsened, and they were hospitalized.

“The first night my father-in-law was in the hospital he died, and they brought him back,” Chromey said.

Chromey passed out twice before beginning to recover, he said. Now, he’s on light duty as his breathing is still affected by the coronavirus. If he doesn’t recuperate fully, he could lose his job, he said.

“I thought COVID in the early days was just another flu,” Chromey said. “I was not concerned. After going through it, be concerned.”

Randi Trowbridge told her story to Walz, saying that she and her three children had mild COVID-19 symptoms, but her husband became sick later than they did. Nearly two weeks ago, her husband isolated himself in his empty mother’s house, but on Oct. 23, his fever spiked to 104 degrees.

“Being the stubborn man he is, he didn’t want to go in,” Trowbridge said about her husband’s hospitalization. “Yesterday, we had a good day, he had no new negatives, but the positives are very little."