WAHOO – Despite the fact that the risk dial last week dropped back into the moderate range, Saunders County is seeing a troubling spike in COVID-19 cases.
“We’ve got issues right now in Saunders County,” said Terra Uhing, executive director of Three Rivers Public Health Department, which serves Saunders, Dodge and Washington counties.
There are 259 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Saunders County as of Monday, according to the COVID-19 dashboard updated every day by Three Rivers.
The county has recorded 94 new positive cases of COVID-19 in the past two weeks, which has pushed the rate of positive tests up significantly, Uhing said on Monday.
“Last week alone we had an 18% positivity rate in Saunders County,” Uhing added.
Since COVID-19 testing began, 4,124 county residents have been tested. Of the 259 positive cases, 40 have recovered. There have been three deaths, the most recent a woman in her 80s with underlying health conditions.
Many of the new cases were attributed to a local event held within the last week or so. While she wouldn’t provide more details, Uhing characterized the event as a large gathering. Through contact tracing, the health department was able to identify a number of cases in people who attended the event.
These cases will have a domino effect in the coming weeks, according to the executive director.
“Now we’re going to see the repercussions from people testing positive,” Uhing said.
The use of cloth masks to cover the face has been heavily promoted by Three Rivers and the Centers for Disease Control as one of several ways to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. But Uhing said face masks are not being taken seriously in Saunders County.
“When you walk around Saunders County, you don’t see very many people with masks except kids in school,” she said.
Schools in the county have either mandated or strongly encouraged students and staff to wear masks while attending class. Against expectations, there have been few incidents of students taking off their masks or refusing to wear them at Yutan Public Schools, Superintendent Mitch Hoffer said during the board of education meeting Monday night.
“From my standpoint, we’ve done a hell of a good job,” he added.
Hoffer said masks are one of the ways the district can keep students in the classrooms and avoid remote learning.
“We’d rather have them in the building,” he said.
Uhing agreed that masks are helping to keep kids in school. The principle issue with the growing number of COVID-19 cases in the county is adults, whose lackadaisical attitude toward mask-wearing could put Saunders County back where things were last spring, when the positivity rate jumped to over 19% the week of May 24 and stayed above 10% for the next couple of weeks. That is not what Uhing or the health department want to see happen again, she said.
“We need people to understand this is serious and we all need to do our part,” she said.
Another important step residents of Saunders County can take to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is to stay home when they are sick or while they are waiting for test results.
“We’ve seen a number of cases where individuals tested come back positive and are out within the communities exposing others,” said Uhing.
The health department recommends staying six feet apart (social distancing) as another method to halt the spread of COVID-19. When social distancing is not possible, cloth face masks should be worn. Hand washing is also vital, as well as cleaning high-touch areas where the virus can linger long enough to be picked up by others.
Three Rivers implemented a “COVID Risk Dial” to give an overview of the risk in the entire district and for each of the three counties under the health department’s jurisdiction. The risk dial uses eight measures to come up with the risk number, including the number of cases, positivity rate, hospitalized patients and those on ventilators, cases considered community spread, availability of testing and other criteria.
Uhing said while the number of positive tests stands out, it is only one factor in determining risk levels.
“Everyone wants to focus on the number of cases,” she said. “It’s so much more than that.”
The risk dial uses colors to indicate the level of risk. Green represents low risk, while yellow is moderate and orange is high. When the risk is severe, the dial is red.
Schools in the county adopted “return to school” plans that use the risk levels to help determine whether there should be in-person or remote learning, or in some cases a hybrid of the two.
In Saunders County, the risk dial went from yellow to orange in late August/early September, but dropped back to the moderate category by last week. But there was no change in school operations, in part because many school leaders focused on the risk in the communities that make up their district, rather than the whole county.
As the number of positive cases climbs in Saunders County, the state has relaxed the Directed Health Measures (DHM) put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19. All but one of Nebraska’s 93 counties were moved into Phase 4 on Monday, Uhing said.
The state implemented DHM in March. Phase 1 restricted bars and restaurants to carry-out/delivery only and limited gatherings to 10 people, among other restrictions. In Phase 2, the number of people allowed at a business or event was capped at 25 to 50% capacity depending on the type.
Phase 3 upped the capacity for gatherings from 25% to 50% of rated capacity indoors and 75% outside. Carnivals, parades and dances were still prohibited at a time when many county fairs and community celebrations were scheduled.
Phase 4, which is in effect until Oct. 31, removes DHM from gyms/fitness centers, bars, restaurants, child care centers, salons and barbers and wedding and funeral receptions. Gatherings can be at 100% capacity outdoors and 75% indoors, but some regulations remain. Venues that can hold over 500 people must meet DHM guidelines and submit a “plan for reopening” in counties with less than 500,000 residents. In counties with a population higher than 500,000, venues with a rated capacity of more than 1,000 must submit a plan and follow other guidelines.
Individuals who test positive for COVID-19 or have a test pending and are symptomatic should isolate at home or a health care facility for at least 10 days in Phase 4. Those who have been in close contact with a person who has the virus should quarantine for 14 days at home unless they are already quarantined in a health care facility.
The DHM will be enforced by civil and/or criminal remedies, the order states.
Uhing urged everyone in the Three Rivers district to keep their guard up by staying home if they are sick or waiting for test results, wearing masks, practicing social distancing and washing hands frequently to stop the spread of COVID-19.
“That’s the only way to be able to get a handle on it,” she said.
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