DECATUR – Half all Illinois counties are now considered at a warning level for the coronavirus, according to the state’s public health department. Macon County, in central Illinois, is among them. In the county of just over 100,000 people, 52 residents have died from the virus, and there are now more than a thousand active cases.
Brandi Binkley, administrator for the Macon County Health Department, says the rise in COVID-19 cases is being fueled in part by gatherings — large and small — where public health guidelines for mask-wearing and social distancing aren’t being followed. Someone in the group may not realize they’re sick and they spread it to others, who bring it back to their families.
Binkley says the county has received state funding to hire more contact tracers. But the hiring process takes time, and in the meantime, she says staff are getting stretched thin.
“We’re hiring them as quick as we can, but just as fast as we hire, is just as fast as the numbers are doubling, tripling,” Binkley says.
Illinois Newsroom spoke with Binkley about how the health department is handling the rising case load.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Christine Herman: How have things been going in Macon County with regards to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Brandi Binkley: We never stopped being concerned about the situation regarding COVID-19 here in our community, but certainly with the number of cases we have been seeing, we’re in trouble.
We really need people to adhere to the public health guidance. We realize that that’s not happening in some cases and causing more spread than necessary.
CH: Is the lack of adherence to social distancing, mask wearing, and those types of guidance, driving the rise in cases?
BB: Yes, I definitely think so. We’ve been doing a review on a rolling basis of where these cases are coming from. As we investigate them, trying to figure out those links, of course, there’s community transmission, so sometimes you can’t quite find the link.
But a lot of times, we are seeing some patterns, things like gatherings that are occurring, definitely some large gatherings, and even small gatherings where it might be some people that go out to dinner together and everybody thinks that they don’t have any symptoms so they’re fine; they take off their masks, they enjoy a meal together.
And then someone in that group ended up being either pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic, gives it to the other people they’re at the table, and then everyone at the table brings it to their own households, and then it spreads amongst, let’s say, five additional households.
Schools are bringing more cases and other congregate types of facilities, of course, because there are more people that are together and give more of a chance for the virus to spread. We’re also seeing cases associated with sports, sporting events and teams.
We also have seen a lot of situations where employees have gone to work symptomatic — sometimes they think they have just a cold or allergies, or bronchitis, that seems simple or like they have it every year. And then (it) ends up being COVID-19. So they’ve been going to work, let’s say for three days, exposing others when they think that it’s no big deal.
So we’re really encouraging people not to go anywhere if they’re symptomatic, even if it seems like something simple, because that is contributing to the spread here.
CH: Has your department been able to manage in terms of keeping up with contact tracing everyone who’s sick as well as reaching out to those they might have exposed?
BB: We have been able to keep up with that and follow the best practices of contacting those cases within 24 hours of us being notified.
We have caught a little bit of criticism from the community that they (don’t hear from us immediately). Well, that’s because we don’t have your information in the system yet, so we don’t know to call you.
But here’s the thing: People should be quarantining themselves if they’re symptomatic in any way, or if they know they’ve been in close contact with someone. And if you go get tested, you should immediately quarantine until you have test results.
People should not be waiting to hear from the health department to follow this public health guidance that has been out for months.
CH: We’re more than eight months into the pandemic… how are you and your staff doing, if you don’t mind sharing?
BB: You know, I’d be happy to share that. I think a lot of times, especially in the social media world, there’s a lot of negativity. I think historically, public health in general has never been appreciated for what it is and how important it is and everything that is done. And I’m not talking about for myself, I’m talking about for my team, and public health in general.
Our team has been beat up in a lot of ways… (and) the health care system, too.
But speaking on behalf of public health and what our team has done: We have had a core group of professionals here in our building that have literally worked every day — or nearly every single day — since the end of February, beginning of March. They’ve not had a holiday, they’ve not had a weekend, they’ve not had an evening. They’re tired. They’re passionate, they love what they do. They believe in what they do, and they don’t want to give up on our community and on their teammates. But people can only take so much time away from their families and time away from their personal self care.
So like I said, we’re trying to hire people as quickly as we can, grow our team as quickly as we can. But as numbers continue to surge, you can’t quite multiply your staff fast enough when something is like this.
And when public health guidance is not being adhered to, it makes it so much worse.
I cannot thank my staff enough for everything that they have done to respond. But also literally my heart aches every day for them because I can’t do enough or figure (things) out fast enough to make it better for them. A pandemic is terrible. But to be a public health professional in a pandemic is something that there aren’t really words to describe.
I feel like the least that the community could hopefully do — those of the people who aren’t doing it yet — is to adhere to the public health guidance, and to respect public health professionals and healthcare system professionals.
CH: What is your message for the public, especially with the holidays and people wanting to gather? What are you telling residents in your area? Or what is your message to the public more generally?
BB: Well, I think we need to stay strong. I know everybody’s tired of COVID, everybody’s tired of the restrictions. But the pandemic has not gone away. Despite how some people feel or think, it’s not going to go away anytime soon.
I understand the heartbreak with not being able to celebrate holidays traditionally. I love holidays. I love my family. I haven’t seen my family. And so I understand and I’m right there with you. But we have to stay strong.
It’s so important for people to take these precautions — to consider not gathering or to find ways to social distance gather — because we do want to make it out on the other side of this. You do want your entire family and group of friends to still be alive and safe on the other side of this pandemic. And these are sacrifices that we all need to continue to make to keep ourselves and others safe.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was updated to note that as of 2 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 23, half of all counties in Illinois are at a warning level for the coronavirus.
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