ATTICA — A recent surge in cases of COVID-19 in Fountain County suggests that residents are letting their guard down in limiting the spread of the coronavirus, the county’s top health leader said.
The county has seen an increase of 75 new cases in the past two weeks, according to the Fountain and Warren County Health Department. That compares to 130 positive cases diagnosed over the first six months of the pandemic.
Friday was “relatively quiet” in a week that saw double-digit increases in new cases, with four added to the count, health officer Dr. Sean Sharma said. That brings the overall total to 199, with two deaths reported.
“I will emphasize of these recent cases there’s a variety of ages and a variety of severity of symptoms, with some people being completely asymptomatic and some people critically ill and hospitalized,” Sharma said in an interview.
The increase comes as the state set a single-day record on Friday for new COVID illnesses, adding 1,832 cases to the list, according to the state health department.
There were 19 new deaths reported. More than 131,400 cases have been confirmed in Indiana since March, with over 3,500 deaths.
Through contact tracing, Fountain County health officials have linked some of the newly-confirmed cases to gatherings of 50-150 people in churches, weddings and family events where social distancing, hand washing and masking recommendations are not being followed, Sharma said.
“I think there likely has been some decreased compliance with the public health precautions that have been supported by the health department over the last several months,” he added.
There has also been a “significant increase” in tests requested and performed in the department’s offices, the department said in a Facebook post.
The health department urges residents to wear a mask, especially inside public spaces, and avoid crowded places. People are also encouraged to limit travel to Fountain and Warren counties except for necessary or emergency trips. The department has posted tips for safe recreational travel at FWHealth.org.
Sharma went on to say a “lack of effective leadership supporting and echoing” the recommendations also contributed to the rise in cases.
“Most of the time, education, support and communication is enough,” he said. “I think the reason that it’s not enough this time is because there’s too much confusion about what the right action is, and there’s confusion because there’s not a cohesive, consistent message that’s coming both from public health professionals along with elected leaders and this is not only at the local level, but it’s most significant at our federal level.”
Locally, Sharma said there has been little support for the department’s guidance from the Board of Commissioners and the Covington mayor’s office.
Commissioner Tim Shumaker declined to comment without having spoken to his other two colleagues. Covington Mayor Brad Crain said he does not “respond to [Sharma] any more,” citing a personal disagreement.
Crain said visitors to the City Building are required to wear masks.
“I’m taking [the virus] seriously, but we’re losing businesses,” he said. “I don’t know if we’ve lost more than one or two here in Covington, but I do take it seriously.”
The health department’s concerns about relaxed precautions extend to voting. When the department learned that Fountain County Clerk Paula Copenhaver had refused to require masks for early voting at the courthouse, officials reached out to the commissioners and the county’s election board.
“I consider it an affront to … a sacred part of our democracy, which is voting,” Sharma said. “And it is our job as elected or appointed officials supported by the taxpayers’ money to not only allow them to vote but allow them to vote safely.”
Sharma said the election board chair assured him that a mask policy would be enacted at the voting center and that the board would meet to ensure that safety protocols were going to be followed.
But Copenhaver said she was following the exemptions in Gov. Eric Holcomb’s ongoing mask order, which includes people with a medical condition or disability that prevents wearing a face covering.
“It’s the individual’s choice. I might be part of the government, but I will not be part of the government overreach,” Copenhaver said. Masks are available at the voting center, social distance is being practiced and equipment is disinfected, she added.
Many Fountain County schools have seen an increase in the number of students and staff quarantined, according to the health department. Sharma said the local school districts have been mostly supportive and cooperating with the department’s guidelines.
He praised Covington Community Schools for moving students to distance learning through Oct. 14, following positive cases involving students and staff members.
Sharma said the department remains in constant contact with Attica and Southeast Fountain schools, which continue to hold in-person classes.
“It does not appear that there has been significant spread — at this time — within schools. It does seem that most of this spread has happened out in the community, either at events or potentially in businesses or other public space where there’s been less compliance with the appropriate precautions,” Sharma said.