County health official: Rochester house party spawned cluster of COVID-19 cases

Multiple cases of COVID-19 in Rochester appear linked to a single house party in recent weeks, according to Olmsted County’s top public health official.

Through testing and contact tracing, health officials believe that a single person at the party spread the virus to multiple other individuals, who further spread the virus in the community, said Graham Briggs, Olmsted County public health director.

“We’ve been tracking this and working on interrupting this transmission that originally started at one house party, and have been working very hard to stop this from transmitting further out from where it originally did,” he said. “One person really can lead to dozens of other infections.”

The news comes as Gov. Tim Walz prepares to lift the state’s stay-at-home order and relax other social distancing guidelines. 

“It goes to show that if you put 30 or 40 other people in a room together, and let this virus move around, it goes so quickly,” Briggs said. 

Public health officials say they will release more details about the situation Friday. 

To date, Rochester has 399 cases of COVID-19 and nine deaths. 

Briggs said that Olmsted County has been able to find the source of 85 percent of the area’s cases through contact tracing, a process in which health staffers interview patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 to find out who else they’ve been in contact with. 

Olmsted County is among several in Minnesota whose staff have been trained by the state Health Department to do the detective work of figuring out where cases start and how they spread. 

State officials say that process, paired with more testing, are key tools in slowing the virus and in knowing when to safely reopen the economy. They’re asking for $300 million from federal coronavirus response funds to ramp up case investigation and contact tracing statewide. 

“This house party is an example of one of those outbreaks where we can identify a common source or a common place where all these people were associated with,” Briggs said. “Then we can pull back on that cluster and see the spread that’s gotten to the families and the households.”

Briggs said the incident, which happened while the state’s stay-at-home order was in effect, is a case study in how contact tracing can help stop the spread of the virus. 

“That allows us to identify if a certain population or a group of people is at risk so we can actually get in front of this and keep people from getting exposed at all,” he said. 

Around the country, epidemiologists are finding that multiple cases or coronavirus can be linked to single events. For instance, in California, a birthday party held during the state’s shutdown led to multiple cases of COVID-19.