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Not Just A Statistical Error: Why COVID-19 Has Gripped A Small Indiana County

While the influx of patients has fallen of late, Decatur Co. first responders and medical workers remain vigilant and warn additional surges could develop. (Brock Turner, WFIU/WTIU News)

Given its rural setting and sparse population, one might think Decatur County and southeastern Indiana are unlikely places for a COVID-19 outbreak. But in the last month, residents have had to think again.

Decatur County has one of the state’s highest per-capita infection rates, and that’s putting a strain on local health systems that don’t have the capacity to care for larger numbers of patients.

Sean Durbin works with the Decatur County Health Department. He believes the data paints an accurate picture. While it is impossible to know just how bad the outbreak is here, Durbin says it is clear this part of the state is disproportionately affected.

“I can’t speak to other counties,” he says. “I know our testing rate per population has been higher than a lot of other counties, so those could be driving up. It’s hard for me to believe it’s just a statistical error, but it’s also hard to say until this whole thing pans out.”

Data from the Indiana State Department of Health shows Decatur County has one the highest rates of positive tests and the highest death rate per 10,000 residents in the state. While a lower population certainly disproportionately effects those numbers, it is still a cause for concern. Surrounding counties, while not as bad as Decatur, still have higher infection rates than other parts of the state. 

Before COVID-19 Dominated News Cycles, It Was Silently Spreading

Public health officials have worked to use contact tracing and identify events and places that could have contributed to the spread of disease. They say large events that took place before social distancing guidelines were in place contributed to the spread.

“We definitely can trace some of the cases back to the sectional basketball game and to the Emmaus Walk that was held at the Baptist Church,” says Cliff Bunch, senior pastor at the First Baptist Church in Greensburg.

Public health officials in other counties say examples like these confirm the disease was spreading in communities well before guidelines were made public and before coronavirus dominated news cycles. Bunch says his church made the best decisions possible given the available information.

“I think the country has a little bit strong picture of this," he says. "Even though we don’t agree on everything, it’s a stronger picture of this than even a month ago. So it probably would be a little bit different, it’s just hard to imagine how.”

Earlier this week Bunch and other church leaders met to discuss how to serve the community and their congregations during a pandemic. He says guidelines are constantly evolving — which is both good and bad.

“Trying to keep up with knowledge base and try to talk to key people in our community who help us be informed about how we can best serve and get back on track when we can," he says.

Currently, Bunch — like many religious leaders across the country — is posting video sermons online. The pandemic has pushed groups that would usually meet in person online. However, he says it has led to new types of engagement.

And there are other positives here as well. After weeks of being on the state’s hardest hit areas, officials are cautiously optimistic.

Arthur Alunday is an Internist in Decatur County. 

“Overall, right now, numbers are getting better," he says. "Visits to the emergency room are decreasing. People being admitted are also decreasing"

Alunday says other indicators point to a flattening of the curve.

“We have a clinic specifically for possible COVID or respiratory illnesses, and the numbers there have also been coming down," he says. "Within the past week it looks like things are improving overall. We have a good supply of PPE so things seem to be improving overall within the county.”

Bunch says he’ll wait for additional guidelines from the state and federal government. In the meantime, he and his congregation will continue to do what they can to help. Each Friday they serve meals to around 70 local residents — even delivering some to shut-ins.  

While the pandemic has and will continue to test individuals and resources, Bunch and others believe there is a place for both hope and progress.

For the latest news and resources about COVID-19, bookmark our Coronavirus In Indiana page here


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