A rapid and concerning acceleration of positive COVID-19 cases has prompted a public health alert in St. Clair County.
The St. Clair County Health Department issued a public health alert Nov. 9 as the county is experiencing a record 9.5% positivity rate.
“Due to the increase in people infected, the current level of new cases per day in November represents a 144% increase compared to the number of new cases per day reported in October,” county health officials said in a news release. “The impact and rate of these changes is already considerably more than a week ago.”
On Nov. 9, the county reported 1,015 active cases. On Nov. 10, the county reported an additional 114 new cases and four recoveries, bringing the total number of active cases in the county to 1,125.
As of Nov. 10, there have been 67 deaths in the county throughout the outbreak.
The health department’s ability to effectively investigate cases to determine sources and exposure of infection have become increasingly limited, officials said, and it has been made aware of a growing number of workplace and school-related cases.
With the upsurge of exposures and quarantines, local businesses, agencies and facilities may find it challenging to properly staff their organizations. Workplace guidance has been developed and can be found online at scchealth.co.
Health officials offered the following tips:
• Do not work while ill, regardless of whether you have had a COVID-19 test or not. Assume you have COVID-19 until you know otherwise.
• If you think or know you have COVID-19, remain in isolation for the full 10 days, even if you are feeling better.
• If exposed, stay in quarantine to the best of your ability for 14 days and make every effort to avoid contact with others during this time.
• Avoid crowds.
• Wear a mask when around people outside of one’s immediate family.
• Make contingency plans for children that may not be able to attend school in-person or day care.
• Avoid indoor dining outside of your home.
• Schedule virtual meetings for social and work-related activities.
• Avoid extracurricular activities and social gatherings that will put you face to face with others.
• Support each other as we make difficult decisions and sacrifices.
“In these weeks or months between high transmission rates and the release of a vaccine, we simply have to deal with this reality,” said Dr. Annette Mercatante, medical health officer at the St. Clair County Health Department. “Remember what is making you mildly ill can be life threatening to someone else. These difficult times will get better, but we have to work together to minimize the impact of this on our community and economy. And we have to act now.”
Facebook Live update
In the St. Clair County Health Department’s weekly Facebook Live update on COVID-19-related issues on Nov. 5, Mercatante and St. Clair County Emergency Management Director Justin Westmiller spoke on more COVID-19 issues.
Mercatante said the county is not seeing a great burden on hospitals, but some of them are reporting increased activity and some are reporting pulling out their plans to assist and adjust with more COVID-19-related capacity.
She said with every case the health department knows about there are probably between five and 10 that it does not know about.
“We are escalating at a rapid rate and have far exceeded the peak amounts of transmission that we saw in the spring,” she said. “There is … a steep incline of that curve, and we talked about a lot back in the spring about flattening the curve, and there’s a great deal of discussion at this point whether that can actually even be done, as opposed to hoping to just see the curve at this point plateau and come down at least to a point that is manageable.”
Mercatante added that new cases are typically followed by several weeks with more severe hospitalizations, which are followed by several weeks with deaths.
“This rapid escalation of new cases would suggest to us that in a few weeks’ time, we’re going to be seeing more individuals who will require more medical care,” she said. “Probably not a greater percentage of people, but when you have a lot of people, that percentage that’s unchanged is a lot more people.”
She noted that testing has bumped up in the past couple of weeks.
When asked, Mercatante said about 85% of St. Clair County’s known cases are reporting symptoms. Cases are coming from many sources, including large gatherings, travel and workplace and home exposures, and about 17% to 20% of people do not know where their exposure was.
“That tells us very simply that there’s enough virus out there that you can get exposed pretty much anywhere and not really know,” she said.
Mercatante noted that for every person that is infected, the county is seeing another 1.2 people getting infected.
“As long as we’re over one, where every one person is infecting more than one person, we’re going to see this increase,” she said. “And then you just reach that critical mass where it becomes exponential. Each increase is more and more people, and that’s what we’re seeing now. So it’s math and it’s science and it’s virology. This is the way viruses work: They go from person to person, and when you have an entire population that’s vulnerable, as we are, then the entire population is the incubator and it starts to spread beyond control.”
“The only control mechanisms we have at this point are … the physical distancing, the masking, and being really conscientious about hand washing and not going out when you’re sick and you have symptoms,” she continued. “That’s all we’ve got and it’s unfortunately not probably quite enough.”
A commenter asked if she was remembering correctly that Mercatante previously said that a 7% positive testing rate was a point where she would be looking at some different practices or regulation changes.
“I think I said after over 5%, I’d be concerned,” Mercatante said. “There’s no question now we’re in a position with this kind of positivity that we can fully expect to see ongoing increases in cases. When we were below 5%, I was kind of hoping we could see a plateau or a stabilization, but now that we’re in this positivity range, we’re going to see increases.”
She said the county should become more aggressive with enforcement.
“We have already in the health department had to change our operational needs and capacities because we can’t keep up, which means we’re going to have to rely on all of you to know what to do,” she said. “But you’re probably not going to get a call from the health department if you get a positive test unless you are under the age of 18, in a congregate setting or in a situation where we’re associating you with an outbreak or a situation where it could be a super spreader event.”
She advised people to stay home.
“This is not the time to have parties, and what a terrible time to say that around the holidays, but this is not the time to have parties, even on your patios,” she said. “This is not the time to bring multiple families together.”
Mercatante did not know if there would be any new laws passed, but said that laws did not work last time very well and did not think they would work well now.
“What we want to do is make sure that people do what works,” she said. “Businesses, if they’re overwhelmed with infection, will probably need to close for short periods of time until the infection clears out of their staff. Those might be 14-day periods as opposed to like, you’re just closed for good. So we’re going to be looking at strategies like that.”
Emily Pauling is a staff writer for The Voice. She can be contacted at 586-273-6200 or [email protected]