ELKHART — The COVID-19 advisory level for Elkhart County was upgraded from yellow to orange Wednesday as a result of an uptick in new infections and the county’s positive test rate.
Advisory levels are determined by the weekly infections per 100,000 residents (Elkhart County’s was 216 this past week, which is considered red, not orange), and the positive test rate, which needs to be between 10 and 15 percent to be orange. Elkhart County’s positivity rate reached 10.67 percent in the past week after having been 9.87 percent in the previous week. Given the mix of a red and orange score, Elkhart County’s score is considered halfway to red, with a 2.5 numeral score. A score of 3 is the highest.
The change to a more severe advisory level means capacity limits at events and social gatherings in Elkhart County tighten from 50 percent of maximum occupancy to 25 percent, according to local restrictions. Should the county’s advisory level move to red, the limit stays at 25 percent.
Elkhart County Health Department spokesperson Melanie Sizemore said the move to orange was expected.
“It’s not surprising, since the variants are here and they seem to be spreading quickly,” she said.
Two new and more contagious strains of the coronavirus were found in Elkhart County in March, and the number of confirmed infections has grown from a seven-day average of 20 per day on March 1 to 65 per day on Tuesday. That is nearly as much as at the peak of the county’s first wave, which hit a high of 78 infections per day on June 18. The county’s second wave peaked at 326 cases per day on Nov. 17.
As for the current wave, health officials hope it will peak in May, in part because nicer weather will allow people who gather to be outside more, which is safer than gathering indoors. The number of residents getting vaccinated and therefore less likely to get infected or get severely ill is growing by a seven-day average of 748 per day, though a mobile clinic at the Tolson Center this week should add about 550 each day through Saturday. Currently, 24.7 percent of county residents 16 or older are fully vaccinated, according to the Indiana State Department of Health.
Sizemore also said the stricter capacity limits should help change the trend.
“We’re hopeful that it will help, considering that these variants are highly contagious, so being in large groups of people where someone could potentially be ill and not know it is (riskier), so we are hopeful that the reduction in event size will help slow down the increase in cases,” she said.
COVID-19 deaths in the county continue to happen much more rarely than before vaccines became widely available. In the past 30 days, six Elkhart County residents lost their lives to the disease, according to the Indiana State Department of Health. Hospitalizations, however, have become more frequent, with 22 COVID-19 inpatients at Elkhart General Hospital and 23 at Goshen Health on Wednesday. The two hospitals had a total of five COVID-19 inpatients on March 3.
Two of the county’s public health orders ended in early April and were replaced by a new one that mandates mask-wearing in some situations and restricts capacity limits based on the county’s advisory level. The change means that event organizers no longer need the county health department’s permission to host events. With events like the Elkhart Jazz Festival, Elkhart County 4-H Fair and Thor Industries Elkhart Riverwalk Grand Prix taking place in June, July and August, Sizemore said there is some concern, but that it is hard to predict how the local outbreak will look this summer.
“We trust that they will make the right decision in their event, and we’re hopeful that they take our advice, moving forward,” Sizemore said.
Capacity restrictions could be gone before any of those events happen. The public health order is set to expire on May 14, and even if it is extended, it says capacity limits can go to 100 percent if the county is in the least severe blue advisory level. The criteria for a blue score is fewer than 10 weekly cases per 100,000 residents and a positive test rate below 5 percent. Elkhart County was briefly below 5 percent in February.
Sizemore said there are not currently conversations about extending the public health order. That decision would fall on Elkhart County Health Officer Dr. Bethany Wait, though she has previously emphasized that she wants to make such decisions in collaboration with other county leaders, including mayors and the County Board of Commissioners.