ELKHART — The coronavirus outbreak in Elkhart County has never been worse, according to data from the Indiana State Department of Health.
The record for most new cases recorded in a week was broken last week, and as Sunday’s numbers were reported Monday, Elkhart County now has a seven-day average of 87 new cases recorded per day. The previous high, set on June 18, was 78.
As the average number of new cases was 31 per day a month ago, the new data tell a story of a significant and quick worsening. Even in the first few days of October, the average was about 50 per day, and then the case number surged to a previously unseen degree.
“It’s very discouraging and alarming to see that this is happening after this length of time with the virus,” said Dr. Lydia Mertz, Elkhart County health officer.
Elkhart County will move from its current yellow color code, the second-best out of four, to orange, the second-worst, on Wednesday, according to the Elkhart County Health Department’s calculations. No counties in northern Indiana are worse than yellow. The worsened outbreak could result in some restrictions coming back for schools, Mertz said.
“That’s something that we will be talking to the schools about and see what they want to do with that,” she said.
However, it does not appear that the surge in cases is caused by schools being open. State data do not show a high number of cases among local students or staff, and according to Mertz, what is happening in Elkhart County is happening in the community at large.
“People are getting together socially, they’re not taking precautions, and that’s the problem,” she said.
For now, though, she is not considering bringing back any restrictions for the general public. Instead, she hopes to be successful in getting information out about the restrictions and guidelines that are still in place.
“I think that people need to just remember that, when Governor Holcomb said that we were in Stage 5, he didn’t mean that everything was back to pre-coronavirus times. We still have 6-foot distancing required in restaurants, we still have a mask mandate by the executive orders that he’s put out,” she said.
More people have gotten tested recently than had been the case in previous months, but that does not explain the surge in cases, as the positive test rate has also increased. As of Oct. 4, an average of 296 county residents was tested each day, up from 220 as of Sept. 23. In the same range of dates, the positive test rate has increased from an average of 10.8 percent to 15.5 percent. In June, when Elkhart County reached its previous record for average cases a day, the average number of people tested per day was above 400.
Mertz said she hopes the increase in the number of people getting tested continues.
“That is the way to get a spike under control. When we get a lot of tests done, we can catch the disease early and keep it from spreading. We can’t get too many tests done right now,” she said.
To date, 126 residents have died of COVID-19, 22 of them in the last 30 days. That means an average of 0.73 deaths per day in the last month, which remains lower than the high of 1 per day in July and early August. However, health experts say a surge in deaths is likely after a surge in cases, and 12 of the 22 deaths in the last month occurred between Oct. 4 and Oct. 8.
In addition to social distancing, wearing a mask and washing hands, Mertz encouraged everyone to get a flu shot by the end of the month, as getting the flu and COVID-19 at the same time can be particularly dangerous, she said.
“The hospitals are full right now with COVID, and there’s just no room for a flu outbreak,” she said.
According to Mertz, some people, even those with milder disease, can have lingering symptoms for weeks or longer after they recover from the illness. This is especially notable for fatigue, but other symptoms persist as well. The loss of the sense of smell or taste can last months, and in some cases might not return.
“We don’t yet know the long-term effects on the respiratory, cardiac and neurological systems,” she said.
Additionally, both Mertz and Goshen Health said they are now seeing a few documented cases of re-infection months after the initial infection.
“If you haven’t made a habit of wearing a mask when indoors in public, then please do. People can become infected a second time so even if you think you have already had COVID-19, wearing a mask demonstrates you care about the people around you,” said Dr. Dan Nafziger, Goshen Hospital chief medical officer and infectious disease specialist.
In Elkhart County, 106 new confirmed cases were reported Monday, making the total 7,646. Indiana reported 1,581 new cases Monday, making the state total 136,555. Six more Hoosiers have died of COVID-19, making the state’s total 3,568.
More Indiana State Department of Health data is available at www.corona virus.in.gov.