Worked on 1,000-plus cases: Matt Gonzalez, a contact tracer with the Vigo County Health Department since Aug. 2020, talks about the process of contact tracing in his office at the health department on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022. Staff photo by Joseph C. Garza
Worked on 1,000-plus cases: Matt Gonzalez, a contact tracer with the Vigo County Health Department since Aug. 2020, talks about the process of contact tracing in his office at the health department on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022. Staff photo by Joseph C. Garza
As COVID cases surge locally, statewide and nationally, the Vigo County Health Department was a hub of activity Thursday.

Matt Gonzalez, one of about a dozen contact tracers, worked on 30 new cases as the department learned of 324 new COVID cases in Vigo County.

At the health department clinic, Elizabeth Henderson brought her sons to get their second Pfizer vaccine doses, and she got her second Moderna shot.

As predicted, post-holiday COVID cases are exploding.

Nationally, there is an “unprecedented surge at all levels,” according to the Indiana Department of Health.

On Dec. 29, Indiana had its highest single-day case count of the pandemic, at 12,020 testing positive.

On Jan. 3, Indiana experienced its highest 7-day test positivity rate at 18.2%

Vigo County had 944 new cases the week of Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, compared to 497 new cases the week prior, according to local data.

It is also now on a red advisory level, as is Sullivan and Parke counties, according to state rankings. Red is the peak advisory level for COVID-19 transmission.

In Vigo County, many of the new cases are within families who gathered for the holidays, said Chelsea Willis, registered nurse who has helped lead the department COVID response.

The department has not yet seen COVID resulting from large community gatherings, but “that might be yet to unfold,” she said.

Some of the test results have been delayed due to labs closing for the holiday. Willis anticipates once lab results are caught up, numbers will “level out a little.”

But the surge is here and it may not peak until mid February, health officials say.

Contact tracers have been busy. “We do as many as we can. We can’t cover all of them, so we let the state pick up different age groups when we get over 180 to 200 cases per day,” Willis said.

When numbers get that high, local health department contact tracers focus on cases ages 18 and under and 50 and up.

“If we have time, we go back and fill in the rest,” Willis said.

The department also fields a lot of calls, including from people asking about quarantine guidelines.

Several people are calling and asking for results from testing by Gravity Diagnostics at the Wabash Valley Fairgrounds, but the local health department isn’t involved with that test site and doesn’t see those results until they are in the state data base; the local department does not get results directly from Gravity.

In an email, Gravity said “recent testing volume has been very high, which is causing some delays in getting test results out within our normal committed timeframes.” At the fairgrounds, the PCR tests were to have yielded next-day results.

Health department advice to the public hasn’t changed, Willis said. “Be careful, watch gathering sizes, make sure you mask and stay home if you have symptoms.”

School district feels impact

The community numbers also are reflected on the Vigo County School Corp.

The district’s COVID dashboard, which shows that student positives are up from 103 in the last dashboard on Dec. 15 to 176 Wednesday, with student quarantines up from 312 (last dashboard) to 458 Wednesday.

Teacher positives are up from three active cases to 23, with quarantines up from eight to 20. Other staff have increased from 13 positives Dec. 15 to 30, and quarantines from 10 to 16.

“The updated COVID dashboard does reflect an increase in the number of cases, which is in alignment with the surge our community is currently experiencing,” said Katelynn Liebermann, VCSC interim spokesperson. “Each afternoon, we look ahead to the next day to anticipate what challenges could potentially arise.”

The district goal is to ensure students remain in school, in person, each day, she said. The preventative measures in place, including masking, are based on national, state, and local guidelines.

As VCSC continues to navigate the pandemic, it will continue to consult with the VCSC COVID-19 Task Force, the Vigo County Health Department and community healthcare leaders, Liebermann said.

Not all positive student or staff cases come into contact with schools during the person’s infectious period. The district receives cases and quarantine information from the local health department.

The district says that most reported cases of COVID-19 in the school community are the result of household contact.

Vigo County Health Department response

On Thursday, Matt Gonzalez was doing contact tracing for about 30 COVID cases.

“It’s been getting hectic after the holidays,” with family gatherings for celebrations, he said.

With 324 new cases Thursday, it’s split up among the department’s contact tracers, with a focus on those COVID cases 18 and under and 50 and over. “Once we finish that, we work on the people in the middle,” he said.

He’s been doing contact tracing since August 2020. Some people are happy when he calls and welcome the guidance he provides, while others decline to provide information.

“Most of the time now people are compliant, I think because the new variants are going crazy,” he said.

He also does contact tracing with nursing homes.

Getting vaccinated

Among those at the health department clinic was Elizabeth Henderson, 37, who got her second Moderna vaccination. She initially hesitated to get the vaccine.

“It took me a while. ... I wasn’t really for sure for myself, dealing with underlying health issues,” she said.

Henderson finally made the decision because “I lost quite a few close relatives,” she said. Also, her church, Second Missionary Baptist Church, hosted a vaccination clinic.

“I decided then if it’s this close to home, go ahead,” she said.

With the latest surge, “I’m really happy I made the choice” to go ahead, she said.

Her sons, 9-year-old Troy Cockrell and 11-year-old Elijah Cox, also got their second Pfizer shots. Asked how he felt about getting his second shot, Troy responded, “Awesome.”

Elijah said he’s glad he’s vaccinated. “I don’t want to get COVID,” he said.
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