Howard County has confirmed its second death due to COVID-19 and county cases of the disease have climbed to 29, county and local health officials announced Thursday.
No details, such as age or health condition, were released regarding the second reported death.
But with confirmed cases expected in the county to increase and hit its peak this month, the commissioners extended the orange travel advisory through Sunday, April 19 and recommended a “one adult, one cart” guideline for shopping. Businesses deemed nonessential are to remain closed and dining-in at restaurants is still barred, though carry-out is still allowed.
Commissioner Paul Wyman, alongside Howard County Health Officer Dr. Don Zent, local physicians and representatives from both local hospital networks, announced the updated COVID-19 numbers and extension of the travel advisory at a press conference Thursday morning at the county Administration Center.
Health officials at the press conference said the county should expect to see an increasing number of confirmed cases and deaths in the coming weeks. Computer models being monitored daily by health and elected officials forecast the virus to hit its peak – the maximum number of positive infections per day – in Howard County sometime in the next two to three weeks.
Officials said they don’t know exactly what that peak number may be since widespread, countywide outpatient testing is still not available.
Tim Gatewood, an internal medicine physician at Community Howard, said the ability to identify the rate of infection in the county at a “meaningful level” is not yet possible.
“Because we don’t have accurate data on the spread of the virus in the community, you end up with a broad range of estimates,” Gatewood said. “There’s statistical modeling that’s happening in the Indianapolis area based on the data they have. I believe that will be extrapolated here in the near future, but we don’t have those numbers right now.”
With the virus currently in an “acceleration phase” and no treatment or vaccine yet, social distancing becomes even more important, Zent said.
“We’ve attempted to be proactive and try to get out in front of this, but this has been a very difficult task because we don’t really have a roadmap; this is all new to everyone, and we only have a few tools to use,” Zent said. “We may have one card to play – one ace – and that’s social distancing.”
Here are the major announcements made Thursday:
ONE ADULT, ONE CART
Last week, the county barred the sale of nonessential items at businesses deemed essential. The uproar, especially on social media, was quick and loud.
On Thursday, Wyman admitted that the policy was “badly communicated” and “horribly handled.”
So, the county is rescinding that restriction, but with one caveat: recommending only one adult from each household shop at a particular business at a time and buying only enough to fill one cart.
Exceptions will be made for single parents who can’t leave kids at home and for anyone who needs assistance shopping due to a disability. Enforcement will largely be handled by the retailers themselves.
“We want people to get in the store and get out as quickly as possible,” Wyman said. “And the retailers want that because they are trying to protect their employees just as much. ... Please do not take long shopping excursions.”
Executives from both local hospital networks said they are worried about the systems’ ability to handle the influx of patients if the county doesn’t flatten the curve.
“We have what we need, but we’re not going to have what we need if we hit that peak,” Margaret Johnson, president of Ascension St. Vincent Kokomo, said.
Joe Hooper, president of Community Howard Regional Health, gave similar remarks.
“We need to flatten that curve so we do not have that big peak because if that happens we’re going to overwhelm the hospitals and if that happens the hospitals can’t take care of all the patients, and we’re stuck trying to make decisions on who gets care and who doesn’t get care,” he said. “We don’t want to be in that position.”
When asked, executives at both hospital systems did not provide details about the number of beds, ventilators and protective gear they have on hand.
Hooper did say, though, both systems are currently running above normal hospital bed capacity because they’ve stopped elective surgeries and health screenings.
“We’re running about 60% of what we normally do, so we got a lot of capacity there,” Hooper said.
As of Thursday, five or six patients with COVID-19 are being hospitalized at either St. Vincent or Community Howard.
Hooper and Johnson said the hospital systems have drafted their respective “surge plans” in case the worst were to happen locally. They, too, stressed the importance of social distancing.
“It makes a huge difference to stay at home,” Johnson said. “Patients are really sick. It’s a very serious virus.”
FIRST COVID-19 VICTIM IDENTIFIED
The 60-year-old county resident and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles employee who contracted and died of the virus last month was identified Thursday as Jeff Bagby.
Bagby worked at the Kokomo Transmission Plant.
His wife, Chris Bagby, said in a press release she fully supports the restrictions put in place by the county.
“We need to be mindful of those in the community serving others, be it in the medical field, law enforcement or other establishments,” she said. “By all means, please stay home. Our family and friends understand all too well the devastating effects of this horrible virus.”