GOSHEN — With infections beginning to appear in Elkhart County that have no clear source, officials are stressing the importance of staying home to stop the spread of COVID-19.
The number of confirmed cases was at 19 by Monday afternoon, an increase of seven since the state Department of Health released its morning update. County Health Officer Lydia Mertz said the county is continually receiving test reports as laboratories work through their backlog.
She and other county officials say this is a crucial moment in limiting the spread of the virus.
“Now is a critical time in our ability to control the spread of COVID-19,” the county Department of Emergency Management said in a statement Monday. “What YOU do now will affect the success of these efforts to control the virus and prevent severe illness and death. What YOU do now will determine the severity of the economic impact this disease will have on Elkhart County. What YOU do now will determine how long we must use social distancing and other personal restrictions.”
The more people follow state and local restrictions and stay home, the quicker the disease will be brought under control, the announcement said. The agency had received complaints about pickup games of basketball, church services and non-essential employees being required to work, all of which can contribute to the spread of the virus through respiratory droplets or touch.
The county Health Department announced Saturday it’s investigating “community spread” cases. That means the county has at least one person who tested positive for the novel coronavirus but has no identifiable source of infection, Mertz said.
“He hasn’t been around anyone else who tested positive, and hasn’t been around any close contacts of anyone who tested positive,” she said by email Monday. “He picked up the infection from somewhere in the community, but we can’t identify the source.”
She said it’s medically significant because it means there are people in the community who are spreading the disease but have no symptoms themselves or only very mild symptoms. Because of that, they haven’t taken precautions to quarantine themselves.
She said the fact that Elkhart County is seeing community spread is why it’s important for everyone to stay home as much as they can. She also stressed other safety measures, such as staying at least 6 feet away from other people and washing your hands often.
“People with very mild symptoms wouldn’t typically think of themselves as disease vectors, but these are different times,” Mertz said. “Even though it’s really hard to stay away from everyone, it’s vital to controlling the disease burden and the number of people who get serious illness from this virus.”
On Friday, Goshen announced that Councilman Jim McKee tested positive for COVID-19. Since he had attended two public meetings on March 17, the city reached out to individuals who had been in contact with him and told them to keep close watch on their symptoms and to stay home through March 31.
None of the individuals who were contacted exhibited symptoms over the previous 10 days, according to the city’s announcement. As of Monday morning, the number of cases reported in Elkhart County is 12, according to state figures.
McKee, in a statement shared by the city, stressed the importance of people staying home, while Mayor Jeremy Stutsman said it was a reminder of how a single point of exposure can affect many other people.
And while the city had already begun preparing to respond to the virus, city officials saw the diagnosis as a wake-up call and a reminder of the need to keep apart from others.
“The news about Jim’s diagnosis was sobering,” Councilwoman Julia King said. “It suddenly made this invisible virus very real for Goshen.”
Also over the weekend, county officials raised the travel advisory level to orange. The “watch” status means only travel to or from work is recommended, or for emergencies.
It’s also meant to alert residents to the fact that there’s a change in what the county is experiencing, and that they need to take additional precautions and be more discerning about their need to travel, according to County Commissioner Mike Yoder.
Commissioner Suzie Weirick said Monday the county will update the travel alert every week.
“The decision to go orange from yellow is that we are moving more towards communicable, as opposed to trackable cases or contact cases,” she said following the board’s meeting. “And if we can slow the curve, we’re gonna slow the curve.”
The board of commissioners passed an amendment to the personnel policy manual that provides paid leave to county employees who have to self-quarantine due to COVID-19 diagnosis or exposure. It also sets a policy allowing them to telecommute.
Stutsman pointed out how the governor’s executive order to stay at home and Elkhart County’s travel watch are designed to work together.
“These actions are not taken lightly, but they are necessary given these unprecedented times,” he said in a statement Monday. “These measures aren’t there to protect just you, but to reduce the spread of the virus before it reaches more people, many of whom could be severely affected. If we all stay home as much as we can for the time being, we slow down the transmission, buying time so that our hospitals have the necessary staff and equipment to save the lives of patients with complications from COVID-19. The sooner we all comply with these restrictions, the more effective we will be at slowing the transmission, and the faster we will be able to work to rebuild our economy.”