John T. Martin and Thomas B. Longhorne, Evansviller Courier & Press

EVANSVILLE — Local confirmed cases of COVID-19 continue to spiral upward by the dozens, this despite a loosely enforced statewide mask mandate and persistent pleas from health officials to not congregate in tight spaces and to wash hands frequently.

The Vanderburgh County Health Department and local government officials attributed much of the recent spike to Labor Day weekend, noting increases also were observed after Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.

The reopening of schools, though, also seems to be a factor.

Vanderburgh County reported data to the Indiana State Department of Health Monday that shed light on the extent to which COVID-19 has struck in schools.

More: 49-year-old woman was Vanderburgh County's 30th COVID-19 death

The county has registered 186 new positive cases among school-age children since Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp. returned to in-person instruction more than three weeks ago. It is part of a steady rise in the percentage of Vanderburgh County’s COVID-19 cases attributable to school-age individuals since EVSC's return.

Memorial High School Monday reported that with six active positive COVID-19 cases and a "significant" number of students out for quarantine due to being close contacts of those positive cases, the school would be operating as virtual-only for the week of Sept. 21.

More: Evansville's Memorial High goes virtual this week due to COVID-19 cases, quarantines

Memorial is part of the Catholic Diocese of Evansville's school system with 26 schools across several area counties. The Diocese has reported 43 cases among students and staff at their schools through Monday since school started last month. It's not clear how many of those cases are in Vanderburgh County.

EVSC, the area's largest school district with some 23,000 students, will not publicly acknowledge COVID-19 cases in its schools.

More: EVSC: Teachers misunderstand COVID-19 policy, don't have to be anonymous

Given that, the percentage of Vanderburgh County's total positive COVID-19 test results involving school-age individuals is the best available indicator of how many cases are in local schools.

On Aug. 28 — one day after EVSC's first day with its entire 2020-21 student body welcomed back into classrooms together — children age 0-19 accounted for 12.6% of positive cases in Vanderburgh County.

On that day, Vanderburgh County reported that it had accumulated 2,495 positive cases since the first one emerged on March 19. 12.6% of 2,495 is slightly more than 314.

On Monday, Vanderburgh County reported the percentage in the 0-19 school-age demographic had risen to 14.8% of its 3,383 positive cases.

Of the 3,383 total, 14.8% of it comes to just over 500 cases — which is 186 more than 314, the number reported on Aug. 28. It is also an increase of just over 32 cases since Friday's numbers were posted.

But that's not the whole picture, either.

The University of Evansville and the University of Southern Indiana have dashboards that track COVID-19 cases, although neither specifies how many of the students are 18 or 19.

The Shield, USI's student newspaper, reported last week that members of Tau Kappa Epislon fraternity were in quarantine due to positive COVID-19 tests.

On May 21 — when Vanderburgh County had just 228 COVID-19 cases in all — just 3% involved individuals 19 or younger.

Mayor Lloyd Winnecke said the EVSC is abiding by state Department of Health guidelines in its reporting of cases. The mayor complimented the school district's adherence to coronavirus protocols.

"The information I get is they aren't seeing a spread of virus within the school walls," Winnecke said. "It's coming in from the outside. I think you're seeing really good compliance."

Joe Gries, administrator of the Vanderburgh County Health Department, concurred.

“We haven’t seen a spread within schools," Gries said. "Schools are doing really good at keeping kids separated and making sure they’re following all the guidelines within the walls of schools."

Labor Day activities are a key reason for the surge, Winnecke said. He called for the community to "double down" on mask wearing, social distancing and hand washing, especially with flu season approaching.

Winnecke said most citizens are complying with Gov. Eric Holcomb's mask directive, but obviously some are not, and the numbers show "the virus is still very much alive in the community."

Vanderburgh County Commissioners President Jeff Hatfield's recommendations on how to blunt the spread of coronavirus have not changed.

“We’ve been told that masks and distancing and washing our hands are the best ways to prevent spread," Hatfield said. "That message is there; it’s been out there for six months. There’s nobody out there walking that does not know this. Most people that I see when I’m out and about are trying to comply with this. Obviously there are enough folks that aren’t complying with it that create the numbers that we have.”

Hatfield, though, also cited conflicting messages from the Centers for Disease Control that make it more challenging to convince the public to take proper steps.

The CDC on Friday posted new guidance stating airborne transmission of coronavirus can occur "through respiratory droplets or small particles, such as those in aerosols, produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, sings, talks or breathes."

But on Monday, that statement was deleted. The CDC's previous guidance, that the virus is mainly between people in close contact and "through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks" was reposted.

"This has been a continuing problem since March, that we have conflicting important information that gives people an opportunity to be doubtful," Hatfield said.

The impact of Labor Day weekend activities on the rise in cases shouldn't be discounted, according to local officials.

“We just got past Labor Day weekend a couple weekends ago, and every holiday weekend we’ve kind of seen an uptick after that’s occurred,” Gries said. “It happened with Memorial Day. It happened with Fourth of July, especially.”

On July 18, exactly two weeks after the Fourth, Vanderburgh County's "positivity rate" – the percentage of people tested who come up positive for COVID-19 – was in the midst of a steady climb. As recently as July 2, it had been 3.7 percent. On July 18, it was 5.4 percent.

The day before, Vanderburgh County had set another in a string of single-day records for cases with 58. That followed a week that saw several other daily records set locally.

On June 24 – just 23 days earlier – the county had registered 359 cases. That meant 64 percent of the total as of July 18 had been accumulated since then.

“A lot of people are asymptomatic with this and can spread it pretty easily,” Gries said. “Obviously, the more you test, the more you’re going to find, probably the positive cases – which is good because then we can identify those and get those folks isolated and keep them away from other people.”

The weapons against COVID that health and medical professionals have espoused since the beginning of the pandemic are still the best bet to ward it off, Gries said.

“The big thing for people to know is to protect themselves – stay within their small social bubble as much as they can within their families, close relatives, maybe a few friends,” the health department administrator said. “Wear masks when you’re in public and social distance as much as possible when you’re around people.”

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