COVID-19 spike caused by traveling, lax social distancing, health officer says

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(Illustration by Abigail Compton | Collegian Media Group)

Nearly 50 positives were added to the Riley County COVID-19 case total last week — the largest documented increase in cases since the beginning of the pandemic.

Last Friday, the county passed triple-digit case threshold. The following weekend, nearly 30 more new positive cases were added.

A total of 320 individuals were tested in one week, yielding a 14 percent positive rate, local health officer Julie Gibbs said. Three weeks ago, the positive rate was about 2 percent.

Furthermore, the majority of new positive patients fall into the 18 to 24-year-old age range.

Gibbs said some of these new cases can be attributed to individuals returning to the Riley County area.

Last week, Kansas State football suspended voluntary workouts for two weeks after 14 athletes tested positive for COVID-19.

“Through our contact tracing, we’re finding that some patients came back with [COVID-19], and with others, it had to do with them being out and about,” she said.

Gibbs said she believes the area was doing “really well in the beginning” of the pandemic to limit the spread. At the time, Riley County was social distancing so well it maintained an A to B average on the score scale.

“I think Manhattan did an awesome job of taking social distancing and mask-wearing seriously back in March and April,” Jordan Cook, Manhattan resident and K-State alumna, said. “It’s obvious that people have gone stir crazy and decided to take their chances and go back to ‘normal’ lives.”

Riley County now has an F rating for social distancing practices, according to Unacast’s County by County Grade for Social Distancing. This means there has been a less than 10 percent decrease in distance traveled by residents.

Since many cases in the area seem to originate in restaurants and bars, Gibbs said, further restrictions on these kinds of establishments may be disappointing for both owners and customers.

“I feel like we’re in elementary school, and a few kids keep talking and are making us lose our recess time,” Cook said. “As soon as the green light was given to go back to restaurants and bars, I think the message that we still need to be wearing masks and social distancing was lost entirely to the people choosing to go out.”

On Wednesday, Local Order No. 13 lowered the limit for mass gatherings from 100 back down to 50 people, instead of raising it to 250 as originally intended.

Gibbs said while the county hopes to avoid reinstating stay-at-home orders, it may be necessary.

“We know [the stay-at-home order] took a big hit on our economy, and people are tired of restrictions, but we also want to reduce any risk of our health care systems being overwhelmed,” she said.

Jaymes Patterson, junior in management information systems, said the state of the Manhattan economy during the initial stay-at-home order made finding a job difficult.

“Not being able to work or go out for even longer would be rough,” Patterson said. “I just want to go back to regular classes and see my friends this fall.”

While a large portion of those testing positive have been asymptomatic or had mild symptoms, Gibbs said it’s important to remember that these individuals are still carriers.

Staying informed

Moving forward, Gibbs said it’s important for Riley County residents to ensure that the information they consume regarding the pandemic is from a valid source.

“I hate that [COVID-19] has been politicized to the degree that it has because rather than trusting our doctors and medical officials, we’re believing rhetoric from all sides,” Cook said.

With so much information out there, Gibbs said, “lots of people seem to be getting their news from Facebook or other unreliable sources, which is scary.”

Gibbs said the most important thing to understand is that COVID-19 is still out there and is still a danger to the community if not taken seriously.

“This is a time in history where we need to work together and truly care about one another,” Cook said, “Masks and social distancing are the best way to do that.”

For updates and current data regarding cases in Riley County, visit the county’s COVID-19 Information and Updates page.

Businesses with questions about best practices should call the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce at 785-776-8829 or email info@manhattan.org. Additional resources for reopening local businesses are available at regionreimagined.org.

Individuals with symptoms are encouraged to call the screening line at 785-323-6400. The screening line is available weekdays from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. through the end of June. People with non-emergent questions about COVID-19 in Riley County should send an email to rileycountycovid19@gmail.com.

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