ELKHART — Elkhart County moved to orange status Wednesday as the local COVID-19 outbreak has taken a turn for the worse.

Dr. Lydia Mertz, Elkhart County’s health officer, confirmed the move Monday after the county broke the record for most new cases in a day as well as the highest seven-day average of new cases per day last week. The positive test rate and the number of COVID-19 deaths in the county have also increased recently.

The state created its color-coded map in early September and updates it each Wednesday. Elkhart County had never been anything other than yellow until now.

Elkhart County was one of several counties across the state, including neighboring LaGrange and Kosciusko counties, to move from yellow to orange. In total, 21 Indiana counties are in orange, compared to eight a week ago.

Both Elkhart County and the state as a whole, however, saw a lower number of new cases reported Wednesday than had become the norm over the past week. Elkhart’s seven-day average is 86 cases per day after 42 were reported Wednesday. Statewide, the average is 1,587 after 1 ,170 new cases were reported.

Those averages remain about as high as they have been, and health experts fear and expect that the surge in cases will be followed by even more deaths, which tend to occur weeks after someone is infected. To date, 126 Elkhart County residents and 3,609 Hoosiers overall have died from COVID-19.

Local hospitals said they are at capacity due to a recent increase in COVID-19 patients. For much of the late summer and fall, there have been a total of about 20 patients between Elkhart General and Goshen Hospital. Goshen Hospital now has 18, while Elkhart General has 35.

Public ‘slacked off’

Despite the worsening conditions locally, Mertz said she is not planning to impose any new restrictions to mitigate the spread of the virus. She said the County Health Department would instead focus on getting the message out that people should distance, wear a mask and wash their hands. A statewide mask mandate is still in place.

Mertz said the local surge cannot be traced to one event or, for instance, schools having in-person instruction.

“It’s not caused by the schools or anything like that. It’s really the whole community, and we’re going to all need to work together, the whole community, to get these numbers down,” she said.

The problem, she said, is that the public “slacked off” after successfully getting the local number of cases and deaths to go down in the late summer and early fall.

“When we were the hotspot, everybody worked really hard to wear a mask, to distance, to keep from having large gatherings,” she said. “And the result was we brought the numbers way down.”

Possible future restrictions

She said the local and statewide surges have largely come after Gov. Eric Holcomb moved the state to Stage 5 of his Back on Track plan, for instance allowing restaurants and bars to operate at full capacity, though with social distancing.

“I think people didn’t listen to everything that he said, and they just heard, ‘Oh, everything’s open, let’s go back and do everything like we did before COVID came into our lives.’ And the result is this huge increase in our numbers,” Mertz said.

If people fail to take the virus as seriously as they once did and Elkhart County continues to see worse numbers, Mertz said she and other county officials would start considering taking a step back locally, moving to Stage 4 or Stage 4.5, re-introducing some restrictions. Before doing that, though, she would want to talk with state officials to get their input on whether it would be the right step.

“We’d prefer to not have to close everything down. We’d like everything to stay open, but that depends on the response of the community,” Mertz said.

Elkhart Mayor Rod Roberson, who recently shut down City Hall for two days and sent his staff home after a budget hearing that included two staffers who later tested positive, also said that if the local outbreak gets worse, the county should consider reintroducing some restrictions.

Roberson said the city, other than communicating the importance of taking the virus seriously, can also enforce its own safety policies at its facilities. That means, for instance, asking people to wear a mask and telling them to leave if they refuse.

At the budget hearing, many did not wear a mask for extended periods of time, but Roberson said he believes that was not problematic, as attendees were social distancing. Everyone who attended the event was tested for COVID-19, and no one other than the two who are believed to have been already infected at that time tested positive.

Follow Rasmus S. Jorgensen on Twitter at @ReadRasmus

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