Tourists, cabin owners and even snowbirds are being discouraged from venturing into the Northland as COVID-19 cases continue to increase exponentially across the nation.

A third case was confirmed in St. Louis County, the Minnesota Department of Health announced Wednesday. The individual is a woman in her late 30s and is currently recovering at home, according to St. Louis County officials. Like the first two cases, her infection is linked to domestic travel and not community transmission.

While officials won't reveal more specific information on the cases, people should not assume that any area remains virus-free, St. Louis County Public Health Division Director Amy Westbrook said.

"As testing remains limited, we're suspecting and we want to encourage everyone to assume that we do have community transmission within all communities of St. Louis County," she said Wednesday.

Officials strongly advised people to stay home at a news conference held at the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth about an hour before Gov. Tim Walz announced he would issue an executive order banning non-essential travel for a two-week period beginning Friday night.

"Anyone coming into our county from somewhere else risks bringing the virus with them," County Board Chair Mike Jugovich said. "That includes people coming to spend time at their cabin or favorite rental getaway spot, and even snowbirds coming home. Please pause and ask if this is really the best time to travel. We all need to do our part to stop the spread of this virus."

St. Louis County Public Health Division Director Amy Westbrook and Dr. Andrew Thompson of St. Luke's Infectious Disease Associates confer during Wednesday’s news conference. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
St. Louis County Public Health Division Director Amy Westbrook and Dr. Andrew Thompson of St. Luke's Infectious Disease Associates confer during Wednesday’s news conference. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Jugovich noted that can be a tough ask, especially as spring sets in and people normally start coming north to stay at their second homes or to take advantage of recreational opportunities. Residents are still encouraged to go outside for fresh air and exercise — as long as they don't go far and stay 6 feet away from others.

"Normally the Northland is so welcoming and you want to have people come here. One of our greatest assets is that we feel this is probably the most beautiful place on earth and we try to get as many people here as we can," Jugovich said. "It's not that we don't want you. It's that we want to get through this health crisis and this is another one of our avenues to ensure safety for our residents."

Cook County also issued an advisory Wednesday pleading with visitors to stay away. While it will almost certainly harm local resorts and shops that rely on out-of-town business, the North Shore county is one of the smallest in the state by permanent population, which also skews older than average.

"This is an ever-changing and very serious health situation," the advisory read, "and Cook County needs to be diligent in its response."

In Wisconsin, Bayfield and Ashland counties are among those who have also urged cabin owners and others to hold off on travel plans.

Like all communities, the Northland's health care system could become overwhelmed with patients experiencing severe respiratory symptoms, warned Dr. Andrew Thompson, an infectious-disease specialist at St. Luke's.

Thompson said St. Luke's and Essentia are working together to prepare for a "low-level spread," but planning for the possibility that the region needs to double or triple its number of hospital beds for critical-care patients.

He said that includes reorganization of staff — particularly those who work in units that have postponed procedures during the pandemic. Staff is also working to purchase or produce personal protective equipment and consider how some gear may be sanitized and reused, given a nationwide shortage. Some buildings also may need to be repurposed, he said.

"We've been working very closely with our partners at the county, at hospitals throughout northern Minnesota, and between Essentia and St. Luke's, to make sure that we're giving consistent messaging and that we're working together in case we need to help each other out," Thompson said.

"That might mean transferring patients between smaller communities in the Northland to Duluth and vice versa. But we're all focused as a community on working together."

None of the three people who have tested positive in St. Louis County have had close contact with anyone outside of their immediate family members, who are self-quarantining and being monitored for respiratory and fever symptoms, according to Westbrook.

The first confirmed COVID-19 case in St. Louis County was reported Saturday and the second was reported Monday.

At this point, the Minnesota Department of Health has reported that 287 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in the state; 122 of those people no longer need to be isolated and one person has died. More than 11,000 tests have been completed at the state's public health lab and at external laboratories.

Anyone with questions regarding identifying symptoms or whether testing is needed can call Essentia Health at 1-833-494-0836 or St. Luke's at 218-249-4200.

Non-clinical questions, such as preventative steps to take or anything travel-related, can be directed to the St. Louis County Public Health information line at 218-625-3600 or the Minnesota Department of Health at 651-201-3920.

News Tribune staff writer Andee Erickson contributed to this report.

This story was most recently updated at 4:21 p.m. March 25 to include information from a news conference. It was originally posted at 11:35 a.m. March 25.

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