Masks - first day

Sitting around Colden Pond, Sydney Sharp and Olivia Hamilton enjoy the peaceful views and talk amongst each other. Masks are required on Northwest's on campus, where cases have sharply declined in the last week. 

There have been days over the last six months, and more particularly over the last four weeks, when it’s been tough for Tom Patterson to be optimistic.

Patterson, the Nodaway County Health Department Administrator, has tried to cling to a sense of hope throughout the pandemic that first appeared in the county in April. Thrust into a brightening public spotlight as the case count mounted in the county throughout the summer, he’s maintained a consistently positive tone while serving as the de facto spokesman for the county’s COVID-19 response.

But it hasn’t always been easy. As COVID-19 cases spiked intensely in the county after Northwest resumed in-person classes Aug. 19, with the 7-day rolling average of positive cases peaking near 30 cases per day Aug. 28, Patterson feared the worst was yet to come. There were times, Patterson said, that he started his workday at the Nodaway County Health Department expecting cases to compound further than they ever did.

“It never quite happened,” Patterson said in a phone call Sept. 9. He recalled the days, just weeks ago, when the county recorded single-day totals of 46 cases, doing so Aug. 26 and then again Aug. 31. He recounted the days in between, when case totals ebbed and flowed between the mid-teens and low 30s. The county recorded cases in the double digits in 16 of 17 days from Aug. 20 through Sept. 5.

“I always was bracing myself,” Patterson said. “I’m like, ‘Is tomorrow our first 80 day or 100 day or 150 day?’ But that hasn’t happened, so any day that we get through and that’s not happening, you know, whenever you’re in the middle of that, you’ll grasp on to anything to be optimistic.”

For the first time since close to 7,000 Northwest students converged on the county, Patterson and the health department seem to be catching a break. After two cases trickled in Sept. 8 — the latest available data point at the time of publication — the county’s 7-day rolling average for daily positive cases had dropped to 11.71, down from 29.43 Aug. 28.

Patterson said the Health department office, where he’s weathered dizzying workdays over the last four weeks as the county’s case load ballooned, remained quiet Sept. 9. He’d expected a rush in positive cases might have flooded in from the Labor Day weekend, but instead, the workload remained still.

The county’s active case count, which peaked at 275 a week ago, has dwindled to 154, while active cases involving Northwest staff and students have declined to 58 from 189 Aug. 31.

“We knew there would be cases, and maybe an increase here and then a decrease there,” University President John Jasinski said Sept. 3. “As the days go by, we’re gonna have more and more coming off of quarantine — coming out of quarantine, coming out of isolation. They may be replaced by somebody in isolation or quarantine.”

In the days since Jasinksi spoke with reporters following Northwest’s latest Board of Regents meeting, it’s unclear how many total students or county residents have exited quarantine, though the University’s on-campus isolation and quarantine bed capacity has increased.

More than 86% of Northwest’s isolation beds are available, as of Sept. 8, an increase of more than 15% since Sept. 3, according to the University’s COVID-19 dashboard. On-campus quarantine bed availability has increased from 63.16% to 68.42% in the same time frame, while active on-campus cases have plummeted to 13.

The decrease in active cases both at Northwest and throughout Nodaway County has come as testing rates have remained mostly level, Patterson said, though he said he didn’t have specific testing data in front of him. The health department announced 20% of tests reported Sept. 8 were positive, marking the second time the statistic was reported in the agency’s daily COVID-19 update.

If anything, Patterson said, testing levels have increased, as the county gets set to host a community testing event Sept. 14 in a partnership with the Missouri National Guard.

“Which means if we’re seeing — if we see a trend towards less cases and we’re still maintaining that level of testing, that’s even more of a positive thing,” Patterson said. “I don’t think there’s — there hasn’t been a drop off (in testing). The only thing, if there has been, I’d attribute that to the holiday and the weekend.”

Patterson said he can’t explain the reduction in cases over the last week or so, but he expected cases to level out at some point. He’s not sure that what the county is experiencing right now is really the flattening of a curve. He’s waiting for more data, he said.

The administrator isn’t sure how much time has to pass to know the validity of the decline in cases. A week would be good, Patterson said, and two weeks would be even better. A full month would provide more context for what the last week or so of COVID-19 reports has brought to Nodaway County, where Patterson continues his optimistic attack on the virus he said he learns more about every day.

“We’re always just kind of feeling our way here,” Patterson said. “But it’s a good thing — that’s a good trend.”

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