St. Louis County "not there yet" in transition from pandemic to endemic

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Around the country, COVID-19 restrictions are loosening and patience for them is growing thin. But health experts say like it or not, we’re still in a pandemic, although there are signs we’re moving toward an endemic phase.

St. Louis County Public Health Division Director Amy Westbrook said case numbers are going in the right direction. But she said hospitals are still stretched.

"I think some key metrics that we really need to look at are how stressed our hospitals and our health care systems are when we want to take steps to ease some of our public health recommendations," Westbrook said. "We’re not there yet in St. Louis County."

She said she’s confident we will get there, as we have with past pandemics. But COVID-19 variants differ in transmissibility and other factors, and the virus is still making a small percentage of people very sick.

"We certainly want to get to a place where we can treat COVID-19 as similarly as we do with influenza or even the common cold," Westbrook said. "But the common cold and flu don’t fill up hospitals as COVID is doing right now."

And she said the tools we’ve been using continue to be important: testing, vaccines, distancing, staying home when sick, and masking.

"The City of Duluth dropping the mask mandate, that’s not an indication that we shouldn’t be masking," she said. "We recommend still masking in public places because we still are much higher than the threshold of when CDC and MDH would recommend that we no longer need masks in public places."

All of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan are in the CDC’s high transmission category.