ELKHART — County officials charged with leading the local response to the COVID-19 pandemic have some residents confused.
How can we be plateauing, getting better, and have little idea where we are going all in the same week, some are asking after Elkhart County Health Officer Dr. Lydia Mertz on Friday announced her recommendation that local schools should resume at least some in-person instruction as planned.
On Monday, Elkhart County Emergency Management Director Jennifer Tobey said the Indiana State Department of Health numbers for new COVID-19 cases in the county were “misleading” because of the delay in getting tests processed.
“We’re still high. We’re not going down, but we’re also not going up. We kind of leveled off a little bit,” she said in an interview Monday.
On Wednesday, Melanie Sizemore, public information officer for the county Health Department, said “getting accurate data right now is nearly impossible,” because of the backlog for test results.
Then Friday, Mertz made the announcement that students should go back to school, as the “the advantages of in-person instruction outweigh that small risk at this time.”
Mertz acknowledged that Elkhart County has been a hot spot for the coronavirus.
“However, late last week, and continuing this week, we have seen the positivity rate start to decline. Experience from other hot spots shows that once the viral spread starts to decline, it continues downward rapidly. Elkhart County seems to be following that pattern,” her announcement said.
In mid-March, as the coronavirus was closing in on Elkhart County, which at that point had no confirmed cases, Mertz recommended keeping schools open. The same day, all seven school districts in Elkhart County announced they would temporarily close.
No one on the same page
Friday, Mertz’s letter received more than 100 comments within a few hours of being posted to the department’s Facebook page. Many comments were from confused residents.
“I find it very interesting that we have the same 7-day positivity rate (6%) as our neighboring St Joe county yet the recommendations from the two local health department offices seem to have different opinions. It is also hard to say you are making the right choice with so many test results still outstanding due to backlogs,” Tamara Smaka wrote.
“Ok now I’m really concerned no one’s on the same page,” Thomas V. Bona wrote.
According to Tobey, the change in the county’s perspective on the local outbreak is partly based on Mertz having recently taken a deeper dive into local data with a state epidemiologist.
“There is some evidence there that we are starting to flatten the curve and masks and working, and our numbers are going down,” Tobey said. “Overall, it does appear that we’re showing some improvement.”
She said the county is getting some contradicting information, including that the ISDH testing sites there have been here recently due to Elkhart County being a hot spot will now stay through August.
“And the reason I was given that they are now here through August is because Elkhart is still a hot spot and lots of testing is still occurring,” Tobey said.
The ISDH site at North Side Gym is the busiest testing site in Indiana, averaging 150 to 200 tests a day, Tobey had been told by the site director.
Infections not the whole story
As for Tobey’s comments that Elkhart County had reached a plateau, she said that she was talking about more than just infections.
“I don’t necessarily like to focus specifically on numbers because of the fact that the labs are so behind,” she said.
County officials are looking at infection numbers in the longer term and considering other relevant information such as hospitalizations and deaths. Unlike Indiana as a whole, Elkhart County has seen a surge in deaths in July, which has been the deadliest month locally so far.
But data available from ISDH do show a recent downward trend in new COVID-19 cases and in the positive test rate, which is what Mertz cited in her decision to recommend that schools move to in-person instruction.
However, Tobey said there is still reason to be cautious, since recent data still do not show the whole picture, given the 600-700 tests that have yet to be processed.
“If those 600-700 tests come back 75 percent negative, we are going down. That’s great! But if they come back 75 percent positive, then we’re not. We’re still trending upward,” she said.
However, the county as a whole has a test positivity rate of 13.4 percent for all tests since March, when testing began, and recent rates have been lower. But it is impossible to know if the outstanding tests came particularly infected populations, Tobey said. Test positivity rates on individual days have hit more than 25 percent before, though mostly in the early stages of the local outbreak. The only day in July to have a positivity rate above 20 percent was July 5, at 28.6 percent. The county’s all-time high for one day was 42.1 percent on April 11.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Team that was recently in Elkhart County was scheduled to deliver a report on July 23, uncovering why the area had become a COVID-19 hot spot. Because of the delay in getting all the relevant data in the county, the report will now be completed around Aug. 10, Sizemore said this week. Though main findings will be made public, it was unclear whether the entire report will be available for anyone to read.
Test results from 505 individuals in Elkhart County were reported Friday, with 55 new confirmed infections, taking the total to 4,521. One more person has died, bringing the county’s total to 76 COVID-19 deaths since March. Thirty-one of them occurred in July.
Indiana as a whole continued to see high numbers with 912 new cases and 19 additional deaths, bringing the total death count in the state to 2,765.