This graphic shows the increase in coronavirus cases for Elkhart, St. Joseph, LaGrange, Noble, Kosicusko and Marshall counties since March.
This graphic shows the increase in coronavirus cases for Elkhart, St. Joseph, LaGrange, Noble, Kosicusko and Marshall counties since March.
GOSHEN — Elkhart County government and health officials are requesting the state delay Elkhart County moving to Stage 4 by a week.

Although novel coronavirus cases are increasing in Elkhart County faster than much of the state, the county’s two hospitals are not inundated with patients.

“That’s a good sign,” Elkhart County Commissioner Mike Yoder said Thursday. “That says so far the community is handling the increased positives OK.”

The commissioners are working with the county’s mayors and health department officials on monitoring the case spread. “We are in a wait-and-see attitude,” Yoder said. The numbers of new cases and the availability of hospital beds through early next week will be a deciding factor in the next steps for Elkhart County.

On Friday, Stage 4 of Gov. Eric Holcomb’s Back on Track Indiana plan begins. On Wednesday, Holcomb announced he was moving the start date of Stage 4 from Sunday to Friday. This stage will allow gatherings of up to 250 people. Yoder explained that county officials consulted with the state to see if they would recommend delaying moving on to Stage 4.

“We’ve already talked to the state because the state has noted the significant increase in positive tests, … so we asked the state if they were considering delaying Elkhart County in moving to Stage 4,” Yoder explained. “And their response was, ‘No, the numbers don’t warrant that,’ which surprised us.”

The week’s delay in going to Stage 4 would give county officials extra time to determine if Elkhart County’s coronavirus cases are rising or on their way down.

“So what the mayors and commissioners would like, is we’re going to go back to the state and say, ‘Listen, based on the numbers we’re seeing now, we would like a week, if possible, … just to see what the numbers show in the next five to six to seven days.’ That’s all we’re saying,” Yoder said. “About a week from today, we’ll have a new set of numbers and those numbers may indicate that we are no longer growing in percentage of positive cases and show that we are starting to decline. And if that’s the case, then we’re in good shape, OK? But if it shows something different and we see hospitalization rates increase, then we know we made the smart decision by waiting.”

As of noon Wednesday, Elkhart County had 1,832 positive coronavirus cases and 29 deaths.

“People are testing positive,” Yoder said, “and they are asymptomatic. … The complexity of this is so bizarre.”

County officials met recently with major manufacturers and learned they are taking steps to protect their workers in the workplace. “There are early indications that this additional community spread is not because of the workplace,” the commissioner said. Health officials believe, through tracing, that the spread is due to social activities, gatherings and group living situations.

“We want to keep Elkhart County working,” Yoder said, who added that precautions need to not only taken place in the workplace, but in the community.

NEW DIRECTIVE

“The health department is working on a directive that will be more specific about wearing masks,” Yoder said, pointing out that “There are two groups of people: those who wear masks and those who don’t wear masks.”

What the health department and other leaders throughout the county want to convey is that although masks will not be mandatory in Elkhart County, there is a time and place to wear them. “If you are driving in your car and you’re by yourself, you don’t need to wear a mask,” he said. People who are standing six feet apart and not in a crowded room, probably don’t need a mask either if they don’t want to wear one, he said.

However, there are situations where masks are warranted, such as when social distancing is not entirely possible say at a store. So, this directive to encourage not only mask wearing but other precautions will be issued.

And on Monday, the commissioners will be following up with a resolution to support this new directive. He anticipates the mayors and city councils will be doing likewise.

Yoder said there is no proof that masks are the reason places like St. Joseph County have a lower rate of infection. Although, the St. Joseph County Department of Health issued a press release Tuesday saying they believe their public health order, which required face coverings when going into an enclosed public space or business and when six feet of physical distance could not be maintain within that enclosed space, “likely contributed to the decreased transmission of COVID-19 in St. Joseph County compared to similar counties that have not adopted the order.”

Yoder added that enforcement is not possible. If the commissioners were to make masks mandatory, the county would be inundated by complaints of people not wearing masks. And there is no way to keep up with enforcement measures, the commissioner said.

“It just creates additional frustrations and cynicism,” he said, adding that what people need to do right now is to voluntarily slow down the spread by abiding by the directive. “We need to be doing a better job, not just at the workplace, but elsewhere.”

He later said, “We need to control how fast it goes through this community. I call it the burn rate. We need to control the burn rate. Slowly we will make progress and all will be good.”

THE SPREAD

Elkhart County Emergency Management Director and head of Incident Command Jen Tobey said that a very small part of the higher numbers in Elkhart County is the labs being backed up. Those accounted for high numbers a couple of days.

Industries have reopened, but she said the same as Yoder that industries are not the basis of the spread. That is coming with people not social distancing and large group living situations, she said. That was discovered through contact tracing, which has been taken over by the Indiana State Department of Health.

Tobey also said that Elkhart County has made a concerted effort to offer more testing sites that target the Amish and Latino population, so naturally there will be more positives.

“I think that there is still this percentage of people who believe it is a hoax,” she said — that is until it affects them or one of their family members. Testing sites are still seeing a van filled with seven people pull up for testing and then all seven of those people testing positive, she said.

“On a positive note, we are working very closely with community leaders with creating a Latino coalition, an African-American coalition and extensive education with the Amish population,” Tobey said. She believes that with information about the coronavirus being disseminated, that people are motivated to get tested.

Both hospitals, Goshen and Elkhart, are having a steady flow of patients, but they are not overwhelmed, Tobey said. She estimated that perhaps 1 out of 10 to 15 patients are critically ill. “They are not over bed capacity. So far so good. We, of course, have plans in place should we need to open an additional facility or add beds. So far we haven’t had to exercise that plan at all.”

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