Indiana County COVID-19 rumors commence

An ambulance idles in a residential neighborhood in Indiana borough, March 26, 2020. Photo by David Loomis.

Coronavirus diary

By David Loomis

INDIANA – The rumor raised questions. It got some responses, but not many answers.

A second-hand source said a nurse assigned to the intensive-care-unit at Indiana Regional Medical Center was now a patient in the ICU. According to the rumor. the nurse may have contracted COVID-19.

That rumor might be significant, given Indiana County’s one confirmed COVID-19 case, an exceptionally low number amid a cresting global pandemic. Is the tidal wave coming to Indiana County?

 

Questions about the rumor:

— Is it true about the ICU nurse?

— Was the nurse also Indiana County’s first confirmed COVID-19 patient, reported two days earlier in the March 25 edition of The Indiana Gazette? That patient No. 1 had been self-quarantining at home since March 16, the story reported. Had that patient’s condition worsened, prompting hospitalization?  Or does the rumor suggest that there is a second patient, a different case altogether?

— Has contact tracing begun to track down the people with whom the patient(s) may have associated?

— How are coronavirus cases confirmed in Indiana, if test kits are in such short supply? Is it true that IRMC must send COVID-19 tests to California and then wait four days before results can be reported? If so, has that changed?

— And if so, does the turnaround time suggest that Indiana County may have more cases, yet unconfirmed?

— What is IRMC’s capacity – how many beds — to treat a COVID-19 pandemic if it hits Indiana County hard? Is IRMC’s ICU occupied by only one patient (or two) exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms? Does IRMC have a contingency plan in case of more patients?

 

THE RESPONSES:

— IRMC responded March 27 to a March 25 email asking about the first patient’s community contacts. The March 27 email deflected questions to the state Department of Health.

— The local health agency responded with an automated message directing callers to a toll-free number with an 877 prefix. A recording at that number advised that 21 other calls were already waiting in a queue.

— Indiana County’s director Emergency Management did not respond to an email requesting info about the county’s response to COVID-19.

— County Commissioner Sherene Hess reported by email that the commissioners have scheduled an April 8 public meeting using Zoom, an internet-based teleconferencing application. (Good luck to broadband-deficient residents still lacking sufficient bandwidth to attend the online session. Maybe they have time to mail in their questions.)

 

THE QUESTIONS that residents may ask and the waits they may endure to get answers conflict with the county’s updated Emergency Pandemic Response Plan, adopted by commissioners on March 11. (The plan envisions a four- to eight-week pandemic surge.)

On Page 12, in a section on preparedness and external communication, the plan reads, “Timely and accurate information to the general public and other external stakeholders (e.g., business and industry) will be paramount to ensuring that the county’s citizens implement preparedness measures.” Page 14 describes implementation of “daily briefings” under a “unified command structure.”

Will April 8 be soon enough to respond to questions – rumors – that are likely to arise?

In her March 27 email reporting the April 8 commissioners meeting online, commissioner Hess concluded, “I would hope we would do something prior to that.”

Let the local COVID-19 briefings commence.

__________

David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.

he HawkEye invites comments on this and other issues of community interest. Email doloomis@iup.edu or click on the “contact us” drop-down menu, above.

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