beacon testing file

Volunteers and medical officials with Beacon Medical Group conduct testing at a drive-thru site in Elkhart.

ELKHART — Community leaders and local health officials were warning businesses and residents to get serious about efforts to stem the spread of the coronvirus after an alarming spike in the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests.

In an open letter to the Elkhart County business community, three area mayors, the county commissioners and top business leaders on Monday said the community expected a peak in cases in mid-May in northern Indiana, “but numbers in the past week in particular are troubling.”

As of Monday, Elkhart County had 1,322 positive cases from 9,849 people tested, the letter said, and 28 people have died. That puts the county fifth highest in the state in the number of cases, behind population centers Marion, Lake and Allen counties, and Cass County, which suffered an outbreak in mid-April.

More than the number of cases, however, has been an uptick in the percentage of tests returning positive, they said.

“The first couple of months we saw a daily positive test percentage of 4 percent to 9 percent,” the letter said. “Since the economy has reopened, we have seen that jump to 16 percent, and the last week the percentages of positive tests rose to 20 percent to 25 percent.”

By comparison, Indiana as a whole dropped from 18 percent to the current 7.5 percent daily positives.

So while the shutdown and gradual reopening of the economy seem to be working statewide, “Our county tells a different story.”

Elkhart County last week received national attention when it became the 10th most likely in the country to have the next COVID-19 outbreak, based on data collected by the New York Times. The county is no longer on the high end of that list, but only because other counties are doing worse, the letter said.

The letter – signed by Goshen Mayor Jeremy P. Stutsman, Elkhart Mayor Rod Roberson, Nappanee Mayor Phil Jenkins; County Commissioners Frank Lucchese, Suzie Weirick and Mike Yoder; and Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Corporation executives Nick Kieffer, Levon Johnson, Jeff Kitson and Chris Stager – also warned that state or federal agencies could order the county to “stay home” again and reminded residents and businesses that social distancing, masks and handwashing are just as essential now as they have been over the past two months.

“These are not fun times, but we can take steps to slow the spread of the virus and keep our community safer. We need to work together, possibly slow output, and both implement and enforce safe practices.”

The letter, without providing specifics, said the county is seeing record volumes of COVID-19 patients in urgent care facilities and that hospitals have more patients than ever due to COVID-19.

In a separate missive, Elkhart County Health Officer Lydia Mertz also noted an increase in the number of positive tests.

“Although some of that is because of the rise in the number of tests we have been able to do, that is not my only concern,” Mertz said. “As the state has opened up, the increased activities at work and other settings have allowed for the spread of the virus. We need to sustain significant changes in how we go about our everyday lives for the foreseeable future.”

To keep businesses and activities open, and keep ourselves healthy, we have to maintain the safety features that lead to initial success, she said. These are:

Wash your hands frequently during the day for 20 seconds with soap and water. If this is not available, use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol.

Everyone who can is strongly encouraged to use a cloth face covering when they are out in a public area. Even if someone is outside, if they are close to others, they should use a cloth mask. “Many stores and businesses are requesting or requiring the use of these masks to protect their workers and customers, and we endorse these actions.”

Keep distancing. Keep 6 feet between you and those around you as much as possible. Even when you are outside, you need to distance to prevent the spread of the virus.

Stay home if you are sick. The virus is most likely to spread when a person is just starting to feel ill. Don’t wait to see if you get better or worse – just stay home and keep away from others.

Clean frequently touched surfaces often

“We know the virus continues to circulate in our community, and most of us are susceptible to the infection,” Mertz said. “Please commit yourself to these public health habits that are necessary for a safe recovery.”

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