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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Any time Minnesota or one of its many towns lands in a national newspaper article, ears in the state perk up.

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And that was no different than when the New York Times labeled St. Cloud as the top potential hot spot for COVID-19 in the country.

But Mayor Dave Kleis feels people must look beyond the numbers.

“Without the narrative that goes with it, this is just a chart,” Kleis said.

That chart in the article shows St. Cloud as having 540 news cases in the past two weeks, with a daily growth rate of 59%. This is significantly higher than second place, Lincoln, Nebraska, with only 14%.

Mayor Kleis says a recent boost in testing statewide is partly why cases spiked — a point emphasized by Gov. Tim Walz.

“I don’t think there’s anyone that didn’t know that there were more cases out there. They just weren’t known because the testing was so low,” Kleis said.

(credit: New York Times)

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A confusing aspect of the chart is that it lists cities, even though the Minnesota Department of Health tallies coronavirus cases by county. Most of St. Cloud is in Stearns County, which recently had outbreaks at meat processing plants in Cold Spring and Melrose.

“There’s an aspect of not wanting to create fear or panic, so you’ve got to really look at the numbers and analyze where they are,” Kleis said.

The chart was “limited to areas with more than 250 cases and 50,000 people.” Because of that, it did not highlight Nobles County in southwestern Minnesota. The county has an estimated population around 22,000 people. It also has 940 COVID-19 cases as of Sunday, the second highest county total in the state by a significant margin. That’s in large part to an outbreak at the JBS pork processing plant in Worthington.

St. Cloud straddles three counties, including Stearns (589 cases), Benton (32 cases), and Sherburne (54 cases). When the cases in all three counties are added together, the total is still lower than Nobles County.

Monitoring the number of cases in St. Cloud and Stearns County is important to Kleis, but he says his biggest concern is making sure the health care system in the area has enough beds for those who get sick.

“That’s what keeps me up at night is to make sure that we’re doing everything we can so that we don’t overwhelm the health care system, because that’s where it becomes dangerous,” Kleis said. “Don’t fixate on the numbers. Fixate on our ability to respond in our healthcare system. And we have that [hospital] capacity right now thanks to what people are doing.”

That includes social distancing, as well as following the guidelines set forth in the stay-at-home order, according to Mayor Kleis.

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Jeff Wagner