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With Minnesota State Fair looming, health officials offer COVID advice for large gatherings

Crowds present a COVID risk — even if you're outdoors.

Large crowds, even if outdoors, present a COVID risk — so take precautions.

That was the message from Kris Ehresmann, director of infectious disease with the state's Department of Health (MDH), during a conference call Friday afternoon.

Ehresmann said the department has been getting "a number of questions" about the upcoming Minnesota State Fair (now less than two weeks away) and other large gatherings, as the health care system deals with a growing surge in delta variant cases.

Jan Malcolm, the state's health commissioner, also urged people to follow CDC guidelines for mask-wearing and suggested event organizers turn those recommendations into policies.

Ehresmann said it is "more important than ever" people take precautions to protect not just themselves, but others.

For people who are at higher risk of suffering serious complications from COVID (such as the immunocompromised), or for individuals who live with someone in that category, "that may mean deciding to avoid large events right now," she said.

For people who do opt to take part, a layered approach is the safest, Ehresmann said: Get vaccinated if you can. Mask up while indoors even if you're fully vaccinated, if you're in an area with high or substantial COVID transmission (which at this point is almost the entire state). If not vaccinated, put on a face covering even outdoors in crowded areas where you can't stay 6 feet apart from strangers.

And of course, wash your hands, stay home if you're sick and get tested if you have any symptoms, or were in close contact with someone who has COVID-19, she said.

"We know it's difficult for many to think about foregoing big events when we've had to miss out on them last year," Ehresmann said. "However, we're not out of the woods yet, and if we want to get past this we all need to do our part to protect ourselves, our families and friends, and our communities from the harm of COVID-19."

As for the possibility of statewide restrictions or mandates, Malcolm repeatedly said the situation right now is "pretty different" than during the pre-vaccine COVID peak of late 2020. Not only is the state no longer operating under a peacetime emergency, but a solid percentage of the population is vaccinated, we have better treatment options, and the currently rising infection numbers are still much lower than during the worst times.

If there are new restrictions, at this moment, those would come from event organizers, local governments and businesses.

"We definitely don't like the trends. We were a lot happier when all the indicators were going in the right direction," Malcolm said. "But ... we are not in the same position we were in in earlier waves."

But that doesn't mean the situation is no longer tenuous.

"We want to just make sure people understand this is a really important, pivotal time for us to redouble our efforts at prevention so that we don't get into that situation," she said. "We are in a much more favorable position to be able to keep this thing at a manageable level right now if we take action."

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