As the number of COVID-19 cases in Hamilton County have grown from one on March 15 to 179 April 1, local health officials haven’t been surprised.
“It’s about what we’ve expected,” said Christian Walker, public health preparedness coordinator for the Hamilton County Health Dept. “In our county we did quite well to begin with, but we knew it was coming. While we didn’t have reported cases right off the bat, we knew it was lurking in the shadows. We knew it was only a matter of time.”
The first case of COVID-19, caused by the new coronavirus, reported in Indiana was in Marion County on March 6. As of April 1, Hamilton County reported the third most cases in the state, behind Marion County’s 1,117 and Lake County’s 180. Marion County has 1.18 cases per capita, with Lake County at .37 and Hamilton County at .55. Allen County, the state’s third most populous county with 372,877 residents, has only 39 reported cases of COVID-19.
Social distancing to prevent the spread of the pandemic in Indiana has led to the cancellation of nearly all events and the closure of schools, many retailers and dining in at restaurants. Yet the documented cases in Central Indiana have continued to grow by hundreds each day. Walker said it’s too early to know the true impact of social distancing on the local level.
“It’s hard to tell right now, because our dataset (in central Indiana) is so small. If we look worldwide we do see it working,” Walker said, citing South Korea as an example. “It’s kind of an all or nothing thing.”
Walker declined to predict when cases will peak in Indiana, and he said he “can’t begin to guess when we can start lifting restrictions” here.
But he said he’s heard from experts that under a best case scenario some aspects of life may be able to return to normal by the end of April. The health department is preparing for it to be much longer than that, however.
“We’re planning on it being a months-long event, hoping that it won’t be,” Walker said. “It’s better for us to err on the side of caution and over-preparedness than do it haphazardly and extend this by us not doing everything we could to quash it now.”
Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard said the models he’s seen from scholars and federal officials have projected the first wave of COVID-19 in Indiana winding down by approximately May 1.
“It’s not going to be (over by) Easter. That would be about the peak in Indiana, it would appear,” Brainard said. “We know from other epidemics they tend to come back in waves, but more people will have immunity at that point.”
Walker said Hamilton County hospitals are adequately staffed and have enough supplies to meet demand for now, adding that the situation could quickly change. He said canceling elective surgeries and cross training staff have helped hospitals be ready to handle more cases.
“They’ve done a great job with the calm before the storm to prepare for that storm,” he said. “They’ve all been working tirelessly even before (the pandemic) to get ready for this.”
The county health department has been preparing for pandemics for “at least a decade,” Walker said, and in August 2019 officials reviewed their highly-infectious disease plan, not knowing what was to come.
Walker is hoping the good habits Hamilton County residents are stressing now, such as frequent hand washing, will lead to a drop in cases of influenza and colds in the future.
“We’re going to have a new normal, which is going to be a better normal,” he said.