EVANSVILLE — A sudden explosion in COVID-19 cases — 60 new confirmed cases in a week's time — has Vanderburgh County Health Department officials launching an investigation.
Joe Gries, the local agency's administrator, said its contact tracing team and data analysts are crunching the numbers to "see if we can determine if there are any trends or any information within the data that might help us understand why there's a spike here locally."
The health department knows who has tested positive for the novel coronavirus and has access to all the investigative information those cases have produced. According to the agency's dashboard of local cases, 54 cases remain active. Investigators are still monitoring 200 contacts of those people.
"For the last couple weeks, the number of cases were pretty low — and then this is obviously a spike, so we want to look at it and try to determine what's going on," Gries said.
The dramatic increase in local COVID-19 cases began June 25 with the news that the Indiana State Department of Health was reporting Vanderburgh County had 12 new confirmed cases. It wasn't the first time the daily number had been that large, but the numbers in the days to follow offered no letup.
The next day brought news of 10 new cases in Vanderburgh County. The number on June 26 was seven, followed by 12 more on June 27 and another 12 on June 28.
Monday's number was seven, offering local officials the hope that the daily count might finally begin trending down again.
By day's end on Monday, Vanderburgh County had seen double-digit increases in COVID-19 cases in four of the past six days.
Coronavirus surge horrifies county commissioner
Gries declined to speculate on what might have caused the increase, but County Commissioner Cheryl Musgrave said it's clear what happened: Indiana's reopening happened.
Pronouncing herself "horrified" by the recent increase in cases, Musgrave recalled a conversation she and other elected officials had with a local doctor a few weeks ago.
"He was confident (reopening) would lead to more cases," she said. "It's reopening, and people getting out there."
Gov. Eric Holcomb announced three weeks ago that he would move Indiana into Stage 4 of his five-part plan to reopen the state on June 12, two days earlier than scheduled. Stage 4 of the coronavirus pandemic plan brought, among other things, the ability to resume work at office buildings and bars reopening at 50 percent capacity.
Holcomb pounded home the theme that residents still need to wear masks and practice social distancing, sentiments echoed shortly afterward by State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box.
While Indianapolis and Marion County opted to enter State 4 of reopening a week later on June 19, Evansville and Vanderburgh County moved on Holcomb's timetable.
Deputy Mayor Steve Schaefer, who leads the Reopen Evansville Task Force, did not disagree with Musgrave — but Schaefer pointed to other causes as well.
"It's only logical to conclude that as a result of reopening, numbers would increase," he said. "I don't think that's really surprised anybody.
"In talking with the health department even as early this morning, they indicated that not wearing a mask in close contact venues or vacations to states with higher numbers — that those represent potential risks to all of us."
Coronavirus in the county at a 'relatively low prevalence'
Schaefer, whose task force advertises that it is "coordinating the reopening of Evansville post COVID-19," said there is a rationale for keeping things in perspective despite the recent explosion of cases.
It's worth remembering, Schaefer said, that the virus has been in Vanderburgh County "at a relatively low prevalence." He pointed out that Indiana hasn't seen the surge in coronavirus cases that other states have seen.
The Indianapolis Star reported Sunday that the Axios tracker that examines changes in cases over time indicates Indiana is among just four states outside the Northeast where cases are on the decline.
Vanderburgh still isn't faring badly compared to similarly populated counties in Indiana. Porter County has about 13,000 fewer residents than Vanderburgh but significantly more positive cases and coronavirus-related deaths — 676 and 36, respectively, compared to Vanderburgh's 407 and six.
Moreover, Porter has seen some 2,400 fewer tests than Vanderburgh.
Coronavirus cases: Death, new cases still part of the Evansville area coronavirus story
Vanderburgh County has about 96% of the population of Tippecanoe County, yet more than a third fewer cases — 407 to Tippecanoe's 624.
The words have been repeated so much by now that they've become tiresome to many, but Gries said the key to beating back COVID-19 is the same as it was four months ago.
"As things have opened up more and more, as the state has gone through their reopening plan and when we're in different stages, I think people have to understand that the social distancing, the wearing of masks doesn't go away with each step," he said.
"It should continue — the good hand hygiene, not touching your face, stay at home when you're sick. All of that really should continue because those are the only tools we have to really fight this."