Local, state health officials sound alarm on COVID-19

Warnings about the rise in COVID-19 cases played over speakers to a nearly empty room. City Council, like many groups, has been meeting virtually as a precaution during the pandemic. City Clerk Abbey Nosbisch is typically the only official in the council’s chambers during meetings.

EFFINGHAM — A representative of the Effingham County Health Department sounded alarm bells to city officials at Tuesday’s city council meeting.

“Each day the number of cases gets a little more difficult to manage,” said Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Karen Feldkamp.

As of Thursday morning, Feldkamp reported there were 425 people in Effingham County who had tested positive for COVID-19 and are in isolation. There were 673 people who had been exposed to someone with the virus who were in quarantine. This does not include more than 50 people who had been exposed that the health department hadn’t been able to contact, according to Feldkamp.

Last weekend, three people in Effingham County died due to COVID-19.

“I’m super concerned about where our resources are gonna be in a month, maybe not even that long. There is a limit to the resources that are available,” said Feldkamp.

The health department’s presentation came on the same day that Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced a new set of mitigations aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 throughout the state. These new rules went into effect Friday.

“No one takes this lightly,” said the state’s Director of Public Health, Dr. Ngozi Ezike Tuesday. “We cannot in good conscious let our behaviors and activities go unchecked.”

The new rules include requirements limiting the number of people allowed inside retail stores, pharmacies, personal care services, fitness centers, hotels, bars and restaurants. They also include a ban on gaming, casinos, museums, performing arts centers, in-person fitness classes, in-home gatherings and gatherings at event spaces like banquet halls and clubs.

“Instead of trying to buck the mitigations, can we all just follow them, acknowledging these are what is needed to get back to some semblance of normal?” asked Ezike at Tuesday’s press conference announcing the Tier 3 mitigations.

In Effingham County, health department officials are able to identify some activities that are driving the surge of cases.

“Right now, the things that are killing us is the family gatherings,” said Feldkamp at Tuesday’s City council meeting.

Feldkamp reported that one family’s pumpkin carving party put 10 people in quarantine. In another case, one person put 36 people in quarantine in just two days because of social gatherings. They are able to track these because the department has recently expanded its contact tracing team. It now has 16 members, with the department looking to hire 10 more next week.

“I know the public has COVID fatigue, but it’s evolved into COVID stupidity,” said Effingham City Commissioner Larry Micenheimer in a show of exasperation at Tuesday’s meeting.

“It is very, very frustrating. We have seen that masking and social distancing make a difference,” said Feldkamp. “It’s super important that everybody follow those guidelines.”

As case numbers rise, the risks to the health care system rise as well.

“It may not be this week and may not be next week, but there’s a real risk hospitals will reach capacity,” said Jeff Workman, who oversees administration for the health departments of Effingham and Clay counties.

“We’re right at the spot where it might start being an issue to transfer you to a high level of care,” said Feldkamp. “It’s not just COVID patients. It’s all patients.”

Normally, smaller, rural hospitals frequently transfer patients to larger hospitals for specialized or intensive care. With hospitals around the state reaching their limits, this might not be an option.

“I’m already getting calls from hospitals that there’s not a bed,” said Ezike.

The areas with the most strained hospitals are the south suburbs of Chicago and the northwestern region of the state.

“There are other places that are just a stone’s throw away from the same,” she said.

With these new restrictions, officials with the health department and city are trying to understand what powers they have to enforce these mitigations.

“We’ve had some very influential people get upset with the city for not doing more,” said City Commissioner and former Effingham Mayor Merv Gillenwater. “Our responsibilities, I don’t think, are as clear as they should be.”

“At this point, we are begging for voluntary compliance,” said Effingham Mayor Mike Schutzbach.

When asked about what the city could do to enforce these new mitigations, he replied, “We’re still up in the air. Has the court said we can do it?”

“Enforcement is a challenge for a variety of reasons,” said Workman.

He said that his department has been looking into ways to use its authority to license food providers.

“That would probably entail a new food ordinance or a broad interpretation of the one we have,” he said.

On Tuesday, a Sangamon County judge granted a temporary restraining order against four Sangamon County restaurants that continued to offer indoor dining after the county health department suspended their food service licenses. Several lawsuits regarding the governor’s authority to issue disaster proclamations and the latest mitigations were combined and are set to be argued on Dec. 21 in Sangamon County, according to a Capital News Illinois report. They could answer some of the legal questions about local government’s ability to enforce mitigation requirements.

Workman said despite the rise in cases and questions about enforcement powers, the health departments in Effingham and Clay counties are getting ready to handle distributing a vaccine.

“We’ve already added dry ice machines for both counties,” he said. Some vaccines require being stored at temperatures not possible in a regular freezer. “It looks like that’s our best chance to get past this as a country.”

Part of the preparation includes outlining a vaccine distribution play, which Workman said is “in progress.” He added that it’s likely to be similar to vaccine distribution plans for past disease outbreaks, like H1N1. Health care workers, first responders and vulnerable populations, like those at long-term care facilities, are likely to be labeled as “priority groups” for vaccination, according to Workman.

Pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna have both recently announced they have vaccine candidates they claim to be 95% and 94.5% effective, respectively. Ezike, with the state’s public health department, said on Tuesday that vaccines could be made available in Illinois as early as the end of December and early January, pending federal approval processes.

Andrew Adams can be reached at 217-347-7151 ext. 132 or andrew.adams@effinghamdailynews.com

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Andrew Adams can be reached at 217-347-7151 ext. 132 or andrew.adams@effinghamdailynews.com

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