The next stage of reopening the economy in Indiana begins Sunday, and if truth be told, we are not sure Elkhart County is ready for it.

Local leaders also have concerns and have asked the Indiana State Department of Health and Gov. Eric Holcomb to delay the start of Stage 4 in Elkhart County a week. We agree that is the proper call, only because more data is needed and to see if local residents can commit to wearing face masks in public spaces and limit their social interactions.

Our caution stems from the failure of the county to get into a downward trend for positive tests for COVID-19. Local health experts contend that the rise in virus cases is due to people not adhering to social distancing and sanitization recommendations and not wearing face masks.

ACCORDING TO THE St. Joseph County Health Department, “Elkhart County saw a 350% increase in cases during the month of May whereas St. Joseph County saw a 100% increase in cases during the same time period. The Public Health Order that went into effect in May only in St. Joseph County is likely contributing to decreased transmission of COVID 19 in St. Joseph County compared to similar counties that have not adopted the order.”

That order in St. Joseph County included the mandatory wearing of face masks in enclosed public spaces and in businesses.

In Elkhart, Noble, Kosciusko, Marshall and LaGrange counties, newly-reported COVID-19 cases continue to increase, running counter to the trend of generally fewer cases across the state. For instance, the five-county region had been accounting for about 7% of all positive cases of COVID-19 in Indiana until recently, when that number spiked to 20.8% Monday. Elkhart County is now seventh in the state for cases per 10,000 people at 87.2.

But let’s also be clear that the vast majority of people who contract the virus recover and are not even hospitalized. Local numbers bear that out. Goshen Health reported Tuesday that since March 11 it has given 5,411 people tests and 702 were positive. Just 82 people with positive tests were hospitalized with 68 having been discharged so far. Three of the 82 people died.

Also, we don’t believe the shutdown was ever intended to eliminate the virus. The herculean task of wiping out the virus worldwide can’t even begin until a successful vaccine is developed. The closure of factories, stores and limitations on crowds, was always intended to be a stop-gap measure to slow the spread of the virus to the point that hospitals would not get overwhelmed with patients. Statewide, and in Elkhart County, there are plenty of hospital beds and ventilators available now because the shutdown worked well. Just 12.1% of intensive care unit beds in the state’s hospitals are being utilized for COVID-19 cases.

THE REASON CASES are climbing locally, according to the Elkhart County mayors, commissioners and health officials who met Wednesday, is that the virus is mostly being spread through social contact, not at workplaces. That information was relayed to The Goshen News after the meeting by Commissioner Mike Yoder.

A week’s delay in the implementation of Stage 4 will limit the size of acceptable crowds and delay the opening of bars, the increase in seating at restaurants and won’t allow movie theaters, museums and bowling alleys to reopen. At this point, it is wise to limit social interaction as much as possible so the region, especially Elkhart County, can get into a downward trend in COVID-19 cases.

While we don’t believe local officials will go so far as to demand the wearing of masks in public, there is likely to be a stronger recommendation for mask use coming. That also makes sense. We know that wearing masks can be difficult, but the virus is spread through droplets from the respiratory system, and the wearing of masks can slow or halt the spread of such droplets.

If local residents can’t control their actions and continue to spread the virus, they will only harm themselves by setting the region back on our road to economic progress.
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