When he answered the phone at the Nodaway County Health Department Oct. 14, Tom Patterson, who is rarely the department employee to greet callers on the other line, had not yet collected his thoughts.
The department’s administrator has watched the pace of new COVID-19 cases in the county continue to uptick over the last several weeks, and a day before he answered the phone call, his department posted a press release with grim new findings: 34 county residents tested positive for the virus Oct. 12, the highest single-day total since late August.
It wasn’t that long ago when Patterson, always optimistic, said the county seemed to be “turning a corner” as COVID-19 cases continued to fall. The seven-day rolling average for new cases in the county dropped down to around five, where it stayed for much of mid-September. The active case count in Nodaway County dropped as low as 50 Sept. 22. The count among Northwest staff and students, which drove the surge of cases in the county in late August, hit a semester-long low of seven active cases in early October.
But now, every figure measuring the pandemic’s grasp on Nodaway County is trending upward again, leaving Patterson and the health department flustered, dealing with the latest rise in cases they hoped to avoid.
“If I’m all over the place it’s because the cases are kind of all over,” Patterson said. “That’s really what it is — I really don’t have a good idea, other than maybe we’re just, you know, getting a little weary. It’s getting a little long in this. I don’t know.”
Patterson said the rising number of cases, which have continued to increase for much of the last few weeks, could be attributed in part to a sort of COVID-19 fatigue. Residents, he said, could be growing complacent in following the mitigation efforts in place, now seven full months into the pandemic and two months removed from when Maryville City Council first passed the local mask ordinance.
And the relaxation of mitigation seems to be affecting every age group in the county now, after cases first started to rise in adults over the age of 30 two weeks ago. In the last week, the county has seen positive cases in every age group, from the 0-9 age group to 90-99.
The active case count in Nodaway County has ballooned from 57 cases three weeks ago to 139 cases Oct. 13 — the latest available data at the time of publication. The seven-day rolling average in the county has more than doubled in the same time frame, sitting at 14.28 now. And cases at the University, where the virus was nearly eradicated among the student population two weeks ago, has risen slightly again, totaling 34 active cases Oct. 13.
“Unfortunately after cases went down as we settled into the fall, maybe people did get a little complacent,” Northwest Communication Manager Mark Hornickel said in a phone call Oct. 14. “But, as a University, our message hasn’t changed. We’re still asking students and employees to follow the mitigation measures and be mindful of the effects of the virus on those around us.”
With more than a month left in Northwest’s on-ground, in-person semester, which is set to end Nov. 24, Hornickel emphasized that the University still isn’t yet out of the woods, with the threat of a COVID-19 outbreak always looming.
Hornickel said the University could be forced to scale back on in-person events after hosting some in-person activities, including a scaled-down Homecoming parade, over the last several weeks. There are no imminent plans to cancel any scheduled events, though, he said.
Both Patterson and Hornickel urged students and residents to not let their guard down, even as the pandemic stretches on without an end in sight. Patterson said he thinks COVID-19 will be a permanent fixture in America’s vocabulary, though he hopes the threat of the virus subsides soon, even if it isn’t as soon as residents would like.
“Keep the precautions up, just learn to manage your activities,” Patterson said. “I think we’re still able to do pretty much most things that we want to do. There’s gonna be some things that are gonna be different, though, with groups and stuff. Sports look different. Halloween may be different. You know, things are gonna look different, but we’ll manage. We’ll get through that.”
Patterson said he expects the virus to become easier to manage as researchers continue to learn more about it. He talked about the hope a far-off vaccine might provide. He said strides in COVID-19 research help fuel his optimism. He noted the promise of anti-viral treatments, though he qualified his praise for it with a reminder that he’s only a county health director.
Still, Patterson is convinced that researchers, and Nodaway County, will catch up with the virus. He said he doesn’t expect the latest wave of cases in the county to get out of control. And he urged county residents to help prove him right, as the pandemic wears down on Nodaway County and on its health department administrator.
“I’m still optimistic but … it’s hard to maintain that level of optimism,” Patterson said. “I don’t anticipate it getting much worse, though. I really do think that we’re kind of in the trenches right now.”