Health department urges county residents to remain vigilant

By 
Robert Cox

The past two weeks have been fairly quiet for the Perry County Health Department, giving its small staff a much-needed breather.
Since July 13, there have been seven new confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported in the county and, as of Tuesday morning, the number of active confirmed cases had dropped from 62 to eight, giving health department director Sylvia Forester time to catch up on administrative duties.
“Fortunately — knock on wood — it’s been pretty quiet,” Forester said. “We continue to work with the schools and hearing their plans and finishing up the application to receive some CARES Act money.”
As of Tuesday, county totals include 191 confirmed cases, two presumed positive cases, 181 recoveries, four virus-related deaths and no hospitalizations.
Forester said that the decrease in cases is likely the result of community members listening to recommendations from her department, especially a notice issued on June 30 strongly discouraging county residents to avoid large social gatherings. A month later, she said, the county is seeing the results.
“I think the majority of people really, really listened when we when we put up that warning,” Forester said.
At the time the warning was issued, Perry County was in the throes of a massive spike in positive cases, rising from 110 confirmed cases on June 22 to 143 on June 29 and eventually to 183 on July 13, an average of nearly 3.5 cases per day.
On July 8, the health department was monitoring 81 concurrent active cases, the highest total since the first case was reported on March 22.
“It’s strange that our numbers are so good and literally every county that touches us is doing worse,” Forester said. “We expected them to improve, but we didn’t expect an improvement like this. We’ve been pleasantly surprised. I think it goes to show that contact tracing and isolation and stuff like that work.”
The incubation period of COVID-19 can last approximately 14 days and it can take a cycle or two to see a measurable effect, Forester said.
“I don’t know how long our numbers are going to be that good,” Forester said. “If people start to become lax again, it’s going to be an incubation period or two before we start seeing the fallout of people not taking precautions again. This is the point where we say, ‘stay the course and remain vigilant.’”
The drop in numbers prompted the health department last week to lower the county’s COVID-19 alert level to “moderate” after weeks of being rated “moderately high.”
Forester said Tuesday that the needle isn’t likely to drop any further, at least for some time, based on continuing increases in positive cases in the counties surrounding Perry, including Randolph County, Ill., which was placed at a “warning level” last week by the Illinois Department of Public Health.
“Regionally, I feel like we’re the anomaly,” Forester said. “We would have to see a decrease regionally as well for us to feel comfortable moving us to an even lower risk category. If all the surrounding counties were having low numbers, we could consider [lowering the risk category], but with how many people work in Perry County and live outside of Perry County and vice versa, we wouldn’t feel comfortable reducing our risk category.
“We don’t have a bubble over us.”
According to data provided by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, the five Missouri counties sharing a border with Perry County have seen a combined increase of 190 confirmed cases in the past two weeks, with Cape Girardeau County — which also has the largest population in the region — leading the way with 114, followed by St. Francois with 48, Ste. Genevieve and Bollinger with 11 each and Madison with six. During that same period, Perry County had five.
While Cape Girardeau County is attempting to address the problem by making wearing face coverings in public spaces mandatory, other counties are looking to Forester’s department and using Perry County as an example.
“In fact, St. Francois County actually called and asked if they could use some of our wording that we used when we put out our warning regarding large events,” Forester said. “They put out a similar notice to their public since they’ve seen an increase in cases.”
Looking ahead, Forester said she feels “cautiously optimistic,” but warned that any progress made against the virus can be quickly lost if county residents don’t remain vigilant, particularly with the first day of school less than a month away.
“We want to keep a positive attitude and we want to be optimistic but with caution,” Forester said. “People still need to follow all the public health guidelines and wear a mask if you can’t social distance. Knowing that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, you can’t guarantee anything right now.
“We really need these numbers to stay low, to give these kids a good start to the school year.”

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