ELKHART — The COVID-19 outbreak continues to improve in Elkhart County, but the rate of new infections means the risk of community spread will remain in the red category, or most severe, as defined by state health officials.
Before the county can move from the red to orange color code, which would result in a loosening of restrictions after two weeks, it must have fewer than 200 weekly infections per 100,000 residents and a seven-day all-test positive test rate below 15 percent. For past week, Elkhart County’s figures were 289 and 15.69 percent, respectively.
In November, infections and deaths reached levels many times higher than seen at any point in the spring or summer, at one point reaching a seven-day average of above 300 new cases per day for eight days in a row, and a total of 93 COVID-19 deaths. Now, the seven-day average is at 78 new cases per day, the same as the worst point in the pandemic until October. Sixty-eight county residents have died from COVID-19 in December, according to the Indiana State Department of Health – a level that, despite being an improvement over November, is almost twice that of October’s 36 deaths, which was the high mark at the time.
Dr. Lydia Mertz, the county’s health officer until her retirement at the end of the year, was happy about the positive trend but pointed out that the outbreak is still at one of its worst levels since March.
“This whole month we’ve seen a steady decline in the number of cases, so that’s been really good,” she said, adding that the number of deaths is still “horrible” and that there is much room for improvement.
She knows many people do not like the restrictions imposed by her and Gov. Eric Holcomb in mid-November, she said, but she believes those restrictions are part of the reason the outbreak has gotten less severe since then.
“People pay more attention to their masking and distancing, and it’s really made a difference,” Mertz said.
With the restrictions, which made requirements of businesses and organizations to make COVID-19 response plans and ensure that people are following guidelines, the county and the City of Elkhart can issue warnings and fines to entities that do not comply. According to Mertz, the county has yet to issue a fine or a warning, but has instead been in dialogue with those organizations that were not following the orders. Mertz said that, as of last week, the county had received 600 tips about non-compliance.
“We’re just trying to help people realize that it’s a serious thing for the county, and how much better it is for the business if people can come in and not be afraid that they’re going to get sick,” Mertz said.
Vaccines at nursing homes
Vaccinations began for health care workers in the county on Dec. 18, and nursing home residents are next. At Greencroft in Goshen, Walgreens will have a clinic on Tuesday where all residents and team members who want to get vaccinated can get the shot.
“It feels like it’s the first step to having the virus under control,” said Aimee Riemke, Greencroft Communities vice president of marketing.
She was at a different Greencroft location for its vaccination clinic Monday and said residents were excited. They long for spending time together, having visitors, or things like getting their hair done.
“That’s been something that every one of the ladies mentioned that they definitely wanted to be able to happen,” Riemke said.
Since two shots are required for the vaccine to be effective, Walgreens will be back in another three weeks for a second clinic, and again three weeks after that, in case anyone who wanted to vaccine missed it the first time around. While the facility waits to see the effects of the vaccinations, there are no immediate plans to open up to visitors or to become more lenient in general, though the hope is that restrictions will not have to be in place for much longer.
Many nursing homes have been hit hard by the pandemic, and Greencroft in Goshen has lost several residents to COVID-19. According to Riemke, the outbreak was particularly bad in summer, when it was more difficult to contain the virus because getting test results took a long time. Now, Greencroft is testing twice a week, and that has resulted in fewer infections, she said.
Another nursing home where residents will get their first shot next week is Hubbard Hill in Elkhart, which has also lost several residents to the virus. CVS will be doing three clinics at Hubbard Hill, with the first one on Thursday. Staff members who wish to get vaccinated can also get their first shot then. People are thrilled, spokesperson Barb Kauffman said.
“Suffice to say everyone is very happy and relieved because they know this is a huge step forward,” she said.
Hospitals doing better
As the number of new infections has decreased since November, so has the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations. Elkhart General had 48 COVID-19 inpatients Wednesday, down from about 90 in mid-November. At that point, the hospital had about 180 total inpatients, though the normal capacity is 144 and the hospital was postponing elective procedures.
On Wednesday, Dr. Michelle Bache, vice president of Medical Affairs, said the hospital was at its capacity of 144 inpatients, which was a relief.
“We’re at a much more manageable point right now,” Bache said. “We’re not operating in the crisis mode that we were in.”
Goshen Hospital has also seen improvement recently and reported having 19 COVID-19 inpatients Wednesday, down from 57 a month ago.
The fact that there has been improvement does not mean the hospitals are no longer in a difficult situation, Bache said. Most hospitalized COVID-19 patients are very sick, and they are not easy to care for. The intensive care unit at Elkhart General was above capacity around Christmas, and the hospital had to transfer some patients coming in through the emergency room.
Elkhart General staff gave close to 500 shots of the vaccine on the first day, Bache said, and the hospital is now providing shots to licensed health care workers in the community. Bache said health care workers who have received the first shot have reported expected side effects, such as chills or soreness. Most people are doing well, she said, and no severe reactions have been reported locally.
With staff in the process of getting immunized and the number of patients being more manageable, there is a more optimistic atmosphere at Elkhart General, Bache said. Health care workers see the downward trend in cases within the county and hope it will mean the number of COVID-19 patients continues to diminish as well.
“We are definitely moving in the right direction, and I think that is very encouraging to the staff,” Bache said.