Elkhart General Hospital CEO Cark Risk II tells Elkhart County commissioners Mike Yoder, middle, and Suzie Weirick, right, that he is in favor of a mandatory mask order because of a rise in local COVID-19 infections. Staff photo by Roger Schneider
Elkhart General Hospital CEO Cark Risk II tells Elkhart County commissioners Mike Yoder, middle, and Suzie Weirick, right, that he is in favor of a mandatory mask order because of a rise in local COVID-19 infections. Staff photo by Roger Schneider

GOSHEN — Everyone in Elkhart County will be required to wear a face mask when they cannot maintain a 6-foot social distance in indoor and outdoor public areas and all employees and visitors to businesses must wear masks under a health officer order that begins Tuesday.

Dr. Lydia Mertz issued the order at Monday morning’s Elkhart County commissioners meeting. Also, the state’s health commissioner, Dr. Kristiana Box, told the commissioners she does not recommend the county move to Stage 5 of Gov. Eric Holcomb’s reopening plan.

Elkhart County has had 2,976 residents test positive for COVID-19, state health department numbers show. Forty-eight new cases were added Sunday. There have been 42 deaths in the county attributed to the virus. The rate of those tested having positive tests was 14.1% as of Sunday.

Stage 5 is set to begin statewide on July 6. The commissioners took no action on delaying the next stage; instead, they said they would wait to see if Gov. Eric Holcomb issues a delay order for the county, noting that Box advises the governor on such matters.

Mertz read her order to the commissioners, saying in part, “The county has been experiencing high positivity rates for the infection and current methods of infection control have not been able to bring this rate down. In fact, we have gone from a positivity rate of approximately 16% at the end of May and the first week of June to about 20% in the fourth week of June. In addition, the county is experiencing an increase in hospital census of persons infected with the coronavirus, which has caused some straining of the health care resources. That is coupled with the fact that Elkhart County is still experiencing a significant number of deaths due to this disease, with 14 just this month.”

Box said the state’s recent positivity rate is about 5%.

And without a mandatory mask ordinance, the health officer said the rate of infection might continue to grow.

“As shown by the experience of others, without a substantial addition to our current methods of infection control, Elkhart County will experience continued worsening in the rate of infection, further strains on our health system, and further deaths,” Mertz said.

Box said she believes the wearing of masks can reduce the infection rate in Elkhart County, adding that the Indiana State Health Department has been studying the difference of COVID-19 infection in communities that have mandatory mask orders and those that do not.

“What we are seeing, in comparison one-on-one, what we find is increased spread in communities that don’t mandate masks,” Box said.

She said mask usage was first thought to inhibit the spread of the virus by the person wearing the mask, but new data shows the masks may also protect the wearer.

“At first we just thought it was ‘my mask was going to protect you and your mask was going to protect me,’ but now we are actually seeing these masks may actually protect us. Still, if you are within 10 foot for longer than 15 minutes, that is a close contact and that is something you will have to be quarantined for be because there is still the opportunity you could get sick …”

Others in the local health care field told the commissioners they support the order.

“I am a firm believer in the research and studies I have seen on masks,” said Goshen Hospital CEO Randy Christophel. “If we are going to turn the corner, we have to do this. The whole game right now is turning the corner. We have to turn the peak and go the other direction.”

Elkhart General’s administrator said he is also in favor of the mask ordinance because he sees a need to slow the spread of the virus.

“Really in the last week we have been seeing an increase,” said Carl Risk II, Elkhart General’s CEO. “We had been running on a daily basis for positive cases in the hospital of around 15, get to 18 or so, and that bounced around kind of up and down. Last week we dipped into the 20s and quickly got up to as high as 30 positive patients in the hospital. That certainly created pressure on the hospital.”

Risk said the hospital has beds available, but the increase in patients has led to a shortage of critical care nurses.

“Where we run into trouble is the really sick patients need critical care nurses and intensivists. So that became the pressure point for us,” Risk said.

The ISDH sent five ventilators to the hospital last week in case they are needed, he said, but so far, they have not been used. Over the weekend the COVID-19 patient count dropped to 26, with six of those on ventilators.

“That’s the ebb and flow that happens every day,” Risk said. “We are looking on this almost on an hourly basis of kind of where we are.”

Risk told Box, “I am here to say I love that you said we shouldn’t go to Stage 5. I don’t think we should either, as a hospital administrator. I think we should push the pause button on that.”

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