GOSHEN — Spurred by surging COVID-19 numbers, the Elkhart County Health Department has released a Best Prevention Practices guide aimed at helping curb the county’s increase in positive virus cases and prevent state restrictions being placed on the county.
Lydia Mertz, health officer for Elkhart County, referenced the new guide while providing a COVID-19 status update to members of the Elkhart County Health Board during their meeting Thursday evening.
“The Health Department this week released a best practices document. We hope this will be used by the public to guide their actions,” Mertz said of the guide. “And they need to do that until we get a widely-available, effective vaccine. So, it’s not just for a month, or a week, or even just the winter. It’s going to last a long time.”
VERY HIGH RATE
According to Mertz, October has seen a shocking increase in positive COVID-19 cases throughout the county, and over a very short time period, leading county health leaders to explore additional options for reaching the public about the importance of following recommended COVID-19 safety protocols.
“In August and early September, we saw about 220 to 250 new cases a week. After Labor Day, we jumped to 300 to 350. But the first full week of October, we saw 531 new cases. And last week, the week of Oct. 11, we saw 746 new cases,” Mertz told the board. “On Oct. 17, just on that one day, we saw 128 new positive cases. And as of Oct. 17, we had seen 16 deaths, compared with 15 for the whole month of September. However, I think we’ve had three more deaths this week, making the total 19 deaths for October so far.”
Mertz noted that the state on Wednesday moved Elkhart County from a score of 2.0 to 2.5, or the high end of level orange, under its new color-coded county map system, which can be viewed through the state’s COVID-19 Dashboard at www.coronavirus.in.gov.
Under the system, which updates weekly on Wednesdays and utilizes data from the previous Monday through Sunday, each county is assigned a color based on the average of scores assigned for the number of weekly cases per 100,000 residents and its seven-day positivity rate.
Counties colored blue, scored 0 to .5 points, represent counties reporting less than 10 new weekly cases per 100,000 residents, or a seven-day positivity rate of less than 5%.
Counties colored yellow, scored 1 to 1.5 points, represent counties reporting between 10 to 99 new weekly cases per 100,000 residents, or a seven-day positivity rate of 5% to 9.9%.
Counties colored orange, scored 2 to 2.5 points, represent counties reporting between 100 to 199 new weekly cases per 100,000 residents, or a seven-day positivity rate of 10% to 14.9%.
The system then tops out at red, scored 3 points, which represents counties reporting 200 or more new weekly cases per 100,000 residents, or a seven-day positivity rate of 15% or greater.
At level orange, the state health commissioner works with the local health officer to consider additional actions necessary to protect the community, Mertz explained, noting that the county health department decided to issue the COVID-19 Best Prevention Practices guide to help the community independently make the appropriate choices and prevent the need for future restrictions.
However, she noted that if Elkhart County residents and visitors do not follow the recommended best prevention practices outlined in the guide, the county may move to level red, which would allow the state health commissioner to independently take action to restrict activities in the county. This could include things like reducing social gathering sizes, restricting large events, limiting elective hospital procedures and requiring remote learning.
“We’re still in the orange, but we’re closer to the red designation that would call for the possibility of state interventions,” Mertz told the board. “And from the contact tracing that we’re doing, from the zip code data, from conversations with the state epidemiologist, there’s really not one specific cause for this sharp increase. It is community spread. There is not a certain event, or place, or business. So, this is a really difficult problem to tackle. Some people we hear saying to us that we should just stop all precautions and just let the infection play out. Some people are tired of the changes that the pandemic has brought, and so they just want to act like things are back the way they were, rather than face reality.
“The health department can offer facts, we can keep the public up to date, and as we discover more, we can offer advice. But we cannot monitor the activities of individuals,” she added of the situation. “We depend on each individual to follow the guidelines to the best of their ability. That’s what will work. And if we can get people to do that, that’s what will work for the long term.”
As written, the new guide lists a variety of best prevention practices aimed at helping to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Extensive descriptions of how best to incorporate those practices are also provided as part of the guide.
A sample of the many topics outlined in the guide include: protocols for visiting long-term care facilities; avoiding crowds and how best to host meetings, gatherings, and special or seasonal events; proper hand sanitation; social distancing recommendations; the importance of face coverings; and staying home when sick.
WRITE THE ENDING
“I want to commend the health department. Dr. Mertz has put out almost daily service announcements, notifications, and has been meeting daily with community leaders to get the message out. They are doing a tremendous job with Emergency Management to try to inform the public, to educate the public, to let our community know to listen to the concerns of the health systems,” board member Josi DeHaven noted at the conclusion of Mertz’s update. “I think this is a story that we get to write the ending for as a community. And I think Dr. Mertz is exactly right in saying that it’s up to each individual to make the decisions about how they manage the precautions, and that’s very important.”
Fellow board member Ebenezer Kio offered a similar sentiment.
“This is an emotional appeal to the community. We’re doing it out of love for our community,” Kio said. “What we are appealing for is understanding, and for everybody to do their part. Hoosiers are known for doing their part, and not complaining. This is a simple thing. Wear a mask, social distance, and just be smart about how you interact with other people.”