ELKHART — The risk of coronavirus in Elkhart County reached the highest possible level Wednesday, moving from orange to red and prompting the county health department to issue a new order requiring residents to wear masks when leaving their homes.
The order, which takes effect Thursday, states that every individual must properly wear a face covering over their nose and mouth when they are in an indoor area open to the public, including public transportation; an outdoor public area where a distance of 6 feet from individuals outside of their household cannot be maintained; or a private indoor or outdoor area where a distance of 6 feet from individuals outside of their household cannot be maintained.
Health officials on Wednesday reported that Elkhart County had an increase of 311 people who tested positive for COVID-19, pushing its moving average of new positive cases to a record 336. Three more people died, bringing the death toll in the county to 197.
Along with 20 others in the state, Elkhart County’s overall risk assessment was rated at 3, giving it a red designation, based on weekly cases per 100,000 (1,061) and a climbing seven-day all-tests positivity rate of 17.9 percent.
All other counties in the state except Putnam southwest of Indianapolis, which remained yellow, were designated as orange. No counties were at the lowest level of blue.
Exceptions to the order, according to the release, include individuals who: are younger than 2 years old; cannot medically tolerate a mask; are deaf or hard of hearing; are unconscious, incapitated or otherwise unable to remove the face covering without assistance; are eating or drinking while seated at a food service establishment; are in a swimming pool, lake or similar body of water, among others.
To ensure compliance with this order, the county health department may conduct inspections of businesses and other entities, the news release said.
If there’s a violation, the enforcement representative will either issue a written warning outlining the type of noncompliance and provide action steps to come into compliance; issue a citation of noncompliance; or issue an order to close the business entity or refer the matter to legal counsel to enforce the citation and order in a circuit or superior court with such penalties including, but not limited to, suspension or revocation of a license; appropriate remedial actions; vacation of a property; inspections; penalties up to $2,500 per violation, with each noncompliant action constituting a separate and distinct violation; entering a judgment; and imposing court costs and fees.
The order also requires compliance with new state restrictions that, among other efforts, limits all public and private gatherings or meetings to 25 or less and requires social distancing and other measures.
Local leaders said the switch from orange to red signifies that people aren’t doing their part to mitigate the spread of the virus.
Elkhart County Commissioner Suzanne Weirick said she’s surprised it took the county this long to enter the red designation.
“I expected us to be in red earlier and I think it’s a very sad thing for our community,” said Weirick, who is part of the county’s Incident Management Team for the pandemic, which consists of first responders, mayors and county officials.
“I think it has a ripple effect that is much broader than anyone anticipates and I think it’s time we have everyone step up and do what’s right and take care of themselves, their neighbors and our families, co-workers and community.”
The number of COVID-19 inpatients at Elkhart County hospitals keeps climbing, Weirick said.
At both Elkhart General and Goshen Hospital, Weirick said combined there were 29 inpatient COVID cases in Sept. 28 which has since ballooned to 130 by Nov 16.
“That’s a staggering piece of information and what that means is that the hospitals are having to shift from practicing all types of medicine to practicing COVID care,” she said. “I’m not a hospital specialist but this is a very sad statement for our community. If people think the mental exhaustion is bad now, it’s going to be even worse if we don’t step up and do what we need to do.”
Greater Elkhart County Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Levon Johnson said everyone in the community needs to act responsibly to help curb the novel coronavirus.
“We cannot have people moving around like this virus doesn’t exist or it’s not having an impact,” he said. “It is having an impact in all phases of our community whether it be family or schools, business and social settings. It’s the most serious thing we’ve ever gone after and we need to attack it with that same tenacity.”
Long haul ahead
State health and hospital leaders warned Wednesday that Indiana could be facing months more of the surging coronavirus infections that have already started to overwhelm hospitals.
The public must take precautions such as wearing masks and avoiding gatherings with those outside their households more seriously to slow the COVID-19 spread, those leaders said during a briefing with Gov. Eric Holcomb. Hospital executives said outpatient surgeries and screenings were being postponed so staffers could be reassigned to help handle the steep increase in coronavirus patients.
“We know we are up for a challenge here in the next few weeks to few months,” said Dr. Mark Luetkemeyer, the chief medical officer for IU Health’s Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. “We’re readying ourselves to be as prepared as possible but ... we can’t keep this up for a long time.”
Nearly a quarter of Indiana’s counties are listed in the highest-risk category and Wednesday’s state health department update showed a 60 percent increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations over the past two weeks.
Health officials also reported updated death totals from the past few days, raising Sunday’s COVID-19 death toll to at least 52, pushing it past the previous daily high of 50 set during the initial surge in April. Indiana has recorded 322 virus-related deaths in the past week alone.
State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box warned that the state is “going to continue to see our cases and our deaths skyrocket” if residents don’t take the right measures.
“We are on an exponential growth curve right now and we do not expect it to turn around quickly,” Box said. “In the next several weeks, we will continue to see cases climb, individuals hospitalized and, unfortunately, more deaths.”