Health officials urge caution as COVID-19 cases surge


Red and orange are the colors of fall.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, those colors don’t paint a pretty picture.

If Hoosier counties receive one of those color designations from the Indiana State Department of Health, it means they have a seven-day positivity rate (all tests) of 10 to 14.9% (orange) or 15% or greater (red) and 100 to 199 new cases (orange) or 200 or more new cases (red).

The color coding is released at noon Wednesdays and reflects data from the previous Monday through Sunday. On Mondays, the ISDH calculates the weekly scores for the metrics.

To calculate test positivity rate, ISDH uses Monday’s seven-day average for the all-tests positivity rate for each county. This calculation is lagged by six days to ensure complete testing information has been received.

To calculate each county’s new weekly cases, ISDH identifies all new positive cases that were collected and resulted in the period from Monday through Sunday. This number is then divided by each county’s total population and multiplied by 100,000.

After calculating the individual scores for each of the metrics, the two scores are averaged together to determine the total county score. The ranges are 0 to 0.5 (blue), 1 to 1.5 (yellow), 2 to 2.5 (orange) and 3 (red).

On Wednesday, Jackson County was among 21 counties falling under the orange level, including one of four at 2.5. Only one Indiana county, Fountain, was designated red.

Dr. Christopher Bunce, public health officer for the Jackson County Health Department, said the county recently went from blue to yellow before bumping up to orange.

“There are four counties in the state with a 2.5 rating and one with a 3.0 rating. That puts us among the five worst counties in terms of our rating right now, in terms of the amount of cases we’re seeing,” he said.

As of Wednesday, Jackson County’s number of weekly cases per 100,000 residents was 259, and the seven-day positivity rate was 12.55%.

As of Friday, the county had 25 new positive cases, bringing the total to 1,010. The ISDH reported 105 new tested individuals, bumping the total to 8,646.

The county’s 11th death related to the virus also was included in Friday’s report. That death occurred Wednesday.

October hasn’t been a good month for Jackson County in terms of the number of positive cases. So far, a double-digit number of new cases has been reported 11 times, including a high of 30 on Oct. 5 and 21 new cases on Oct. 8, 10 and 14.

“It was a communitywide surge and probably has to do with disregarding of masking as well as an increase in the number of social events, like small festivals, music events,” Bunce said. “Also, family gatherings are playing an important role. We’re seeing family clusters, so it’s a general community uptick.”

All Jackson County public schools are changing to a hybrid schedule this week due to the county’s upgrade to the orange level.

Bunce said it’s up to the schools how to design the schedule and how long to keep it in place.

“We meet and discuss the issues regularly with schools and work with them,” he said. “They have all devised their own sort of plans because one school is not quite like another. They have different layouts and different student bodies and they have different concerns, so we’re working with them to have individualized plans.”

Dr. Eric Fish, president and chief executive officer of Schneck Medical Center in Seymour, said the hospital has seen a “three to four times increase” in the number of patients with COVID-19.

“This is a big issue,” he said.

Bunce, who also is an infectious disease specialist at Schneck, said the hospitalization rates go up when there are more cases reported in the county.

“They go together, and that’s what we’re seeing, and that’s a big concern because we don’t want that to get too high,” he said. “We want to be able to provide full medical services for all of the medical problems in the community and not be swamped with COVID.”

The county’s positivity rate was high at the beginning of the pandemic in March and took a slight dip throughout the summer when there was a full capacity of testing.

This month, however, Jackson County is experiencing a higher positivity rate.

“Right now, we’re going to be encouraging everyone to look at reducing capacity, improving distancing and tightening up on enforcing mask mandates,” Bunce said. “That means we’re going to be spending a little more time going around the county making sure that stores and businesses are complying and reminding everyone that this is extraordinarily important and we’ve really gotten behind the curve here.”

On Sept. 26, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb moved the state’s reopening plan to Stage 5, which allowed restaurants, bars, fitness centers and stores to operate at full capacity, but people had to maintain social distance and keep their masks on except while eating or drinking. The restrictions on the number of people at a public gathering also were eased.

Bunce said that’s when Jackson County started seeing an increase in positive cases.

“I think people took Stage 5 as being ‘Well heck, we’re back in normal times now. We can do what we want,’ and unfortunately, I think that was a misinterpretation of what the governor intended,” Bunce said.

The local health department doesn’t have a police force, but it can respond to complaints about a business violating the mask mandate, Bunce said.

The health department relies on businesses to do their own enforcement of mask wearing among employees and customers.

“We have a limited number of things that we can do,” Bunce said. “If we order permits for a restaurant, for example, we can easily close a restaurant because they are open based on a permit that we issue. For a tattoo parlor, same thing. They can’t be open without our certification, so those businesses that we have some sort of approval power over, we can close them.”

The health department also can report a business in violation to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Bunce said.

When it comes to family gatherings and people not wearing masks, Bunce said there’s not much the health department can do.

“It all comes down to people gathering in groups not wearing masks and not staying far enough apart,” he said. “If the community is not buying into it, it’s tough. We work hard with leadership. It’s very hard to get this going at the grassroots level, but leaders around the county know that it’s essential, but sometimes, people are getting a little burnt out on the COVID thing.”

Bunce said he doesn’t think wearing a mask is that great of a burden.

“We’ve had greater burdens to carry throughout our country’s history than wearing a mask, and it seems to me that if we can tough this out with a mask, it’s not so bad,” he said.

Fish agreed.

“I would just encourage people to wear their mask and socially distance,” he said.

During the pandemic, Bunce said wearing a mask is the greatest sign of courtesy people can show to each other in a social setting.

“Wearing a mask is being a responsible and good neighbor,” he said. “I really believe that that’s what we have to emphasize to our Jackson County residents instead of an attitude of rebellion and resistance, which is what we’re kind of seeing. Sadly, this has gotten a bit political. I think masks should be depoliticized, and we should look at it as a valid public health measure and a neighborly gesture, a safety measure.”

On the Web

Indiana State Department of Health:

Indiana COVID-19 Dashboard and Map:

Jackson County Health Department:

Schneck Medical Center: or

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