ELKHART — Elkhart County’s COVID-19 color code moved from red to orange Wednesday, but it was unclear whether there was real improvement from the previous week, and the change does not affect restrictions, officials said.
Meanwhile, 43 percent of all confirmed COVID-19 cases in Elkhart County were recorded in November. In the one month, Elkhart County saw 8,020 new confirmed cases, of its total 18,510 since March.
It has been more than two weeks since November became the month with the most COVID-19 deaths in Elkhart County, topping October’s 36. The Indiana State Department of Health reported three more COVID-19 deaths in Elkhart County on Wednesday, one of which happened in November; the number of COVID-19 deaths in that month alone was 91.
That means that 37 percent of the 245 COVID-19 deaths in Elkhart County happened in one month, even as the virus has been in the county for nine months.
Of Indiana’s four color codes, red signifies the worst outbreak level, while orange is slightly better. Elkhart County still has more than enough weekly cases per 100,000 residents to be considered red (the requirement is 200 or more; Elkhart County had 692 last week), but the county’s seven-day positive test rate for all tests, not individuals, had dropped to 14.6 percent at the time this week’s colors were assigned. For a county to be considered red, it must have a positive test rate of at least 15 percent.
Gov. Eric Holcomb’s recent executive order limiting gatherings does so based on a county’s color code, but a county must have been designated a less restrictive color for two consecutive weeks before restrictions are loosened, according to Elkhart County Health Officer Dr. Lydia Mertz.
That means gatherings in Elkhart County are still limited to 25 people, and IHSAA events are limited to participants, support personnel, and parents and guardians. If Elkhart County stays orange for another week, restrictions will be loosened to allow gatherings of up to 50 people and 25 percent capacity at IHSAA games.
Elkhart County’s seven-day positive test rate for all tests has dropped from the all-time high of 17.5 percent on Nov. 10 to 14.5 percent on Nov. 25, the most recent date with non-preliminary data for positivity rates, and the county number of new cases plateaued at about 300 per day in the week before Thanksgiving.
A significant drop in new confirmed cases since then – to about 200 per day – is a result of many testing sites being closed around the holiday and should not be taken to mean that the local outbreak is suddenly getting much weaker, according to Mertz. She said the number of tests per day dropped from between 1,800 to 2,000 on normal weekdays to about 300 per day around Thanksgiving.
According to Mertz, even the positive test rate was artificially lowered as a result of a high number of college students who were at low risk of being positive getting tested before leaving campus for the holiday.
“They kind of flooded us with negative tests,” Mertz said. “Goshen College was trying to test everybody before they left college, and I think their positivity rate was around 4 percent.”
That makes it difficult to know exactly what condition the Elkhart County outbreak is currently in, and the moved from red to orange may not reflect reality. Mertz said she hopes it will be clearer by the end of this week or early next week if the county has stabilized.
COVID-19 hospitalizations in the county remain high but are below the record levels seen in late November, when Goshen Hospital had 57 COVID-19 inpatients. The hospital now has 39 COVID-19 inpatients. Elkhart General, which had around 90 COVID-19 inpatients in the worst parts of November now has 81. Both hospitals are canceling elective procedures because of the high number of COVID-19 patients.
Yellow by Christmas?
Mertz believes that the plateau in new cases before Thanksgiving may be evidence that the recent restrictions from the governor, as well as the orders that she issued last month, are having an effect, and she is hopeful that the expected Thanksgiving surge will be muted.
“I would love for us to get out of orange, if that would be possible, and get into yellow before Christmas. And that may not be possible, but that would be the dream,” Mertz said.
The local restrictions will not be lifted or loosened simply because Elkhart County stays at the orange level for two consecutive weeks, if that happens. Mertz said she is looking for a sustained downward trend before she will lift the local mask mandate and restrictions for businesses.
Throughout the pandemic, Mertz has been aware that some have thought the government has overstepped its boundaries, but recently, she said, the attitude has changed, and she is hearing from more people who are thanking her for taking what they see as necessary steps to control the outbreak.
“I have received a lot of letters and emails from people who are really thankful and highly supportive. They recognize that the county was really in trouble,” Mertz said.