Just six weeks after reaching the coveted ‘zero’ rating on Indiana’s COVID-19 metrics map, Knox County has jumped past yellow and back to orange for the first time in more than six months.
With dozens of active cases locally and a 17% positivity rate, the county returned to the second most severe designation, a spot it hasn’t seen since December 2020.
Good Samaritan, too, is once again seeing some inpatient cases of COVID, with Knox County Health Officer Dr. Alan Stewart describing two of the hospitalized individuals as “quite ill.”
Stewart says there is now clearly community spread occurring, prompting the health department to urge residents to begin masking again in confined public spaces.
The masking recommendation, says Stewart, includes vendors at this week’s Knox County Fair.
“We’re seeing just what we saw this time last year, where we went from an occasional case to lots of cases,” he said. “We will have to be just as diligent as we were last year — If you really don’t want to get infected, wear a mask.”
Though some vaccinated individuals have tested positive for the virus, reporting minor illness, the vast majority of cases stem from unvaccinated populations.
“99.5% of people getting really sick, and those who are dying from the virus, are unvaccinated,” said Stewart.
But, he says, the fact that several vaccinated individuals have become infected is another reason to mask when in public, as it adds another layer of protection against the virus.
The current upward trend in cases is eerily reminiscent of July 2020, Stewart said, noting that case numbers went up last year as more locals traveled outside of the state or gathered in large numbers.
“The numbers are clearly going up, and it’s just like the transition we made last year at this time,” he said.
But this summer the county is seeing a new strain of the virus running rampant. Specifically, the Delta variant.
“We know we have the Delta variant here, and our guess is that it’s the majority of our cases now,” Stewart said.
The Delta mutation of the coronavirus left a trail of death across India and has now been found in 124 countries, and it accounts for roughly 83% of new positive cases in the U.S.
Though the mutation does not seem to be any more virulent than other strains, it has proven to be much more contagious than the original virus as well as the B117 strain, which originated in Britain last winter.
According to Stewart, the R-value of the original strain of virus was between 3 and 4, and the B117 strain had an R-value of 5.
The R number is a way of rating any disease’s ability to spread. Seasonal influenza, by comparison, typically has an R-value of less than 1.5.
“But this one — the Delta — it has an R-value of 7,” Stewart said last week, noting that if one unmasked person infected with the strain walked into a room, they would likely infect 7 others in that space.
The Delta variant, too, is less likely to cause the loss of taste and smell — symptoms that had become synonymous with COVID-19.
Instead, this strain of the virus more typically begins by presenting as a runny nose or upper respiratory infection.
“People will be inclined to think they have a common cold,” said Stewart.
Though the majority of local residents have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, Stewart says conditions will continue to worsen in the second half of the year if more eligible adults and adolescents aren’t vaccinated.
“We won’t see the surge we saw last year, but we will see increasing numbers.
“The death toll won’t be as bad either, but it’s still going to be a tough winter with a lot of people going into quarantine,” said Stewart.
Too, he says, while most cases likely won’t be as severe as with the original strain in 2020, even mild COVID cases are going to lead to significant inconveniences for people — with adults missing more work and kids missing more school days.
The way to reduce the likelihood of such inconveniences, Stewart says, is to wear face masks in public spaces — particularly in crowded spaces indoors, such as grocery stores — and to get vaccinated.
“The vaccines are safe, and they will make life a lot less inconvenient for everyone,” he said. “There is no doubt that they are helping save lives.”