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Region Is ‘Strikingly Close’ To More COVID-19 Restrictions, Say Sangamon County Health Experts

Dr. Donald Graham, an infectious disease specialist at Springfield Clinic, urges the public to follow health recommendations to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Mary Hansen
NPR Illinois
Dr. Donald Graham, an infectious disease specialist at Springfield Clinic, urges the public to follow health recommendations to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Sangamon County is nearing 4,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began – about 2% of its population. Local public health officials gathered at a news conference Sunday to sound the alarm about the surge, warning the area is “strikingly close” to having additional restrictions imposed by the state.

They attributed the spike to “COVID-fatigue” – people tiring of the social isolation of quarantine and not washing hands, wearing masks or watching their distance. The county recorded its highest one-day total of new cases last week, at 105.

"With the increasing numbers, the community needs to do its part to prevent this problem from getting worse," said  Dr. Brian Miller, president of the Sangamon County Board of Public Health, at a news conference at the public health department Sunday. "So it's now time for people to focus. Pay attention, please listen to what we have to say."

The officials doubled-down on longstanding recommendations to slow the spread of COVID-19, washing hands, wearing a mask and staying socially distant.

While hopes are high for a vaccine, Dr. Vidya Sundareshan, an infectious disease specialist with Southern Illinois University School of Medicine and adviser to the health department, warned it will take months to get it approved and distributed.

“For the vaccine to be effective, it's going to still take some time,” she said. “What we have now and what we know really works is our public health measures. The three W's, they really do work.”

That’s wash hands, wear a mask and watch your distance.

Sundareshan said that as cases climb, so do hospitalizations, and there could be a risk of overwhelming the hospitals if COVID-19 infections continue to increase.

Region 3 – which includes Sangamon County and much of west-central Illinois – has 32% of its surgical beds available and 25% of ICU beds, down from 35% and 34% last week, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. The target is to have above 20%.

Four of the 11 regions in Illinois are under more restrictions from the state, including limiting capacity and indoor service at bars and restaurants, due to rising COVID-19 cases. Region 3 could be heading in that direction, as its positivity rate reached 7.5% on Friday. Three or more days at 8% or above lead to more restrictions.

There has been pushback from some local elected officials at the prospect of limiting service at bars and restaurants, one potential restriction.

Miller said only the governor has the power to impose them. He said restaurants and bars can safely operate under the criteria provided by the state, and that the health department has been responding to complaints about overcrowded restaurants and bars, and issued warnings or violations where appropriate.

Nationally, bars and restaurants have been a common place of transmission, Sundareshan said, and the county numbers are similar. Though, Sundareshan said there is significant transmission at funerals, weddings, and other large social gatherings.

“Don't go to large gatherings because that is a petri dish for spread," Miller said. 

Dr. Donald Graham – an infectious disease specialist at Springfield Clinic – said the community did well pulling together in the spring to suppress the spread of COVID-19. But people have grown lax about wearing masks, washing their hands and keeping their distance. He pointed out that the county overcame outbreaks of a bacteria-caused infection, leptospirosis, and meningitis in the 1990s.

“The problems we had then were recognized, and people took the steps they needed to stop it,” he said. We're asking now that we do the same.”

Mary Hansen is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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