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Coles County sees 'widespread' increase in COVID-19 cases
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Coles County sees 'widespread' increase in COVID-19 cases


CHARLESTON — It's been a week since Coles County saw its highest one-day total of new COVID-19 cases, and the trend of increasing cases is continuing.

The number of cases in the county included the second-highest total on Friday, when 21 new cases were reported.

The trend led to the Illinois Department of Public Health to change the county's warning designation on Thursday, moving it to a level that warned against public gatherings.

Unlike about three months ago when most of the county's new cases were connected to a Charleston nursing home, there's no one location that accounts for the recent increase, a county official said.

"It's just widespread," said Diana Stenger, administrator of the Coles County Health Department. "Our numbers are pretty high."

Stenger mentioned summer activity and the easing of some state restrictions last month as likely contributors to the increase.

Also, the department has tracked increases in cases among young adults who perhaps aren't maintaining social distancing practices, mirroring what's happening across the state and elsewhere, she said.

"They're taking it home to grandma and grandpa," Stenger said.

The county's current rate of positive tests for the disease is 4.9% and the rate in the state reopening plan region that includes Coles County is 3%, Stenger said. The region's rate would have to increase to 8% before the state would require it to return to the restrictions in place before June, she said.

She also said she feels the situation could be compounded with plans for students to return to in-person classes at colleges and public schools later at some point.

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"I have a huge concern we're going to continue spreading," she said. "We're not going in the right direction."

Illinois has required people to wear masks since May 1 in public situations where it's difficult to maintain 6 feet of distance. Late last month, the Illinois Department of Public Health added 11 counties to the warning list and urged officials there to take steps to reverse the increases.

The Coles County health department reported the first case of COVID-19 on April 6. On Friday, the department announced the 21 new cases, the second-highest one-day total, bring the total number to 469.

The 25 new cases reported on Aug. 1 was the most in any one day and 59 new cases and one additional death from the disease were reported this week.

Stenger said the health department has been in touch with community leaders to try to send the message about precautions with the coronavirus pandemic.

The department has also contacted businesses urging them to require customers and employees to wear face masks and practice social distancing, and she said there does seem to be an increase in those practices.

"As a county, we've all got to be aware and do our part," she said.

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She also said some might mistake COVID-19 symptoms for a cold or "nothing out of the norm," and by the time they're tested they've exposed others. People who are tested "for whatever reason" should stay home until they receive the results, she said.

Meanwhile, the number of tests for COVID-19 has increased at Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center but that doesn't account for the jump in the number of those infected, said Jim Hildebrandt, SBLHC vice president of medical affairs.

The percentage of positive cases would actually go down if more people without the virus were being tested, he explained. He agreed with Stenger that the best approach is to continue with the precautions in place.

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"We're not in danger of closing but we are really moving in the wrong direction," Hildebrandt said. "The only way to contain this is to prevent the spread."

He said he understands that some people don't like being told to wear face masks but "at the same time, not doing it is putting other people's lives at risk."

From March through June, SBLHC processed almost 9,500 COVID-19 tests. Since then, it's handled about 7,700 more.

This week, SBLHC reached an agreement with a different lab to conduct the tests and indicated that results should be reported to the hospital within three days.

With the lab the hospital had been using, it was sometimes a week or more before the results were available, Hildebrant said. That caused anxiety for people waiting for results and "completely paralyzed" the ability to trace the contacts of those infected, he said.

Hildebrant said there's limited capacity for SBLHC to conduct the tests on-site so the outside tests are needed to handle the volume.

In May, SBLHC began offering drive-through COVID-19 testing at a location in the hospital's parking lot.

The testing is available from 1-6 p.m. Monday-Friday. Pre-registration is required by calling (217) 258-7490.

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Dave Fopay is a reporter for the JG-TC who covers Coles County, the local court system, Charleston schools and more.

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