FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — Public health officials here are grappling with what they describe as exponential growth in COVID-19 case numbers, and the situation has caught the attention of The New York Times, which mentioned the Fergus Falls area in its coverage of growing pandemic issues nationwide.

A New York Times online feature titled, "Monitoring the Coronavirus Outbreak in Metro Areas Across the U.S." includes the Fergus Falls area in a graphic that looks at places in the country where COVID-19 is growing.

The Fergus Falls area is ranked at No. 18 out of a group of 20 metro areas in the nation where coronavirus cases are growing. The New York Times feature noted that, over the course of a week, Otter Tail County — where Fergus Falls is located — went from about 426 cases of COVID-19 to about 650 cases, a jump of about 381 cases per 100,000 population.

Two other Minnesota metro areas also made the list of communities where the coronavirus pandemic appears to be worsening, including Rochester, at No. 11 on the list, and Mankato at No. 19.

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Seeing the Fergus Falls area mentioned in The New York Times feature "was a cause for pause" for many people, according to Jody Lien, public health director for Otter Tail County.

Stressing that the information in the Times piece reflected Otter Tail County as a whole and not just the city of Fergus Falls, Lien said the county is not alone among Minnesota communities when it comes to rising COVID-19 numbers.

"I don't know that we're unique from any other part of the region in regards to what is causing the spread of COVID-19," she said, adding the current rampant spread of the virus is thought to be largely due to social gatherings.

With Thanksgiving coming up, Lien said it's important for people to make good decisions regarding get-togethers.

"We like to gather, but by making the choice right now to forgo this Thanksgiving gathering, that's going to allow us to be in a much better spot as we head into Christmas," Lien said.

"Our health partners need that, our schools need that and so do our businesses. Those are really hard-hit places," she added.

In addition to keeping gatherings to a minimum, Lien said sticking to basic safety precautions like wearing a mask and staying home from work if you feel sick help keep communities safe.

Masking, in particular, has proven to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, she said.

"Bottom line is, we have exponential growth happening," Lien said.

Kent Mattson, the CEO of Lake Region Healthcare, told WDAY-TV that COVID-19 numbers at the hospital stick out compared to the rest of Minnesota, noting that 30% of the area's overall positive tests occurred in just the last two weeks.

As of Thursday, Nov. 19, Mattson said 65 hospital staff members were unable to work. If that number gets between 75 and 100, they could be in trouble.

He urged the community to continue masking up and avoiding small gatherings.

"Now is really the time to change that behavior," Mattson said.

Other parts of the region also received mention in The New York Times online feature on COVID-19.

In one graphic, Bismarck is ranked No. 1 in the nation for having the highest cumulative case rate since the start of the outbreak, with 107.7 cases per 1,000 population.

Minot, N.D., is third on that particular list, while Grand Forks is fifth.

The New York Times feature provides links to state-by-state COVID-19 information, including Minnesota and North Dakota.

Information about Otter Tail County's COVID-19 situation can be found on the county's website.