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What rate of positive COVID-19 cases do we need to hit before re-opening? Local health officials weigh in

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World Health Organization officials have recommended that countries should be at a 10% rate of positive cases within the population, along with having sufficient testing in place, to re-open.

Local health officials are weighing in on the rationale for these recommendations in order to start re-opening countries amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Beth Squires, public health program coordinator for Northern Illinois University's College of Health and Human Sciences, said the key is to see a reduction in cases before returning to life as we knew it before the pandemic. She said countries or counties don't want to re-open too soon because they don't want to run the risk of being inundated with more positive COVID-19 cases than before.

“We want to make sure we don’t overrun the health care system,” Squires said.

Squires' comments come after Clay County Circuit Court Judge Michael McHaney ruled in favor of a lawsuit filed by state Rep. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, granting a temporary restraining order against the state's stay-at-home order now running through May 30, which applies only to Bailey himself. Gov. JB Pritzker said Tuesday the state plans on appealing the ruling.

Dr. Amaal Tokars, executive director for the Kendall County Health Department, said her interpretation of WHO's recommendations was to emphasize the importance of widespread testing. With some states projecting a 20% rate of positive COVID-19 cases, she said, the goal is to cut that rate in half.

Since Illinois crossed a threshold of more than 10,000 tests a day April 24, the state has hovered around a 15% positive rate.

The number of positive COVID-19 cases in the U.S. has exceeded 1 million as of April 28, according to the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

Tokars said the slope of the increase in U.S. cases shown on a line graph on the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 data dashboard used to be almost straight up and down. She said there's now a little bit of a curve happening.

“So we really want to see that plateau with adequate testing,” Tokars said.

Referring to Kendall County health data posted on the county health department's site almost daily, Tokars said the line graph showing the trajectory of cases detected each day in the county where it might dip but it keeps going back up.

“We will know that we are out of harm’s way when that line comes back down to same height as that same point at March 15 [when the first COVID-19 case was detected] and stays there and flatlines,” Tokars said.

Tokars said another thing to monitor county health data-wise is the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases that would later be classified as in recovery, or being asymptomatic of COVID-19 for at least 72 hours, represented in a pie chart. She said the county will know it's more or less in the clear of the virus once that data category, represented in green, is overtaking the other slices of the pie representing those recovering at home or in the hospital.

"We want a virtually green circle," Tokars said.

Squires said it's hard to say whether Illinois could open up county by county. Borders are not impermeable, she said, and reopening counties one at a time would require heavier monitoring of who's coming in and out of each county at those borders and a lot of necessary discussion with public health officials.

Squires said she understands the desire to get the economy moving again. However, she said, the main concern with this virus is that it's easily spreadable and it’s affecting those who are young and old, healthy and unhealthy, and with health complications or no complications, and that's why it's important to try to reduce the spread of the virus as much as possible.

“However, I hate to see any loss of life occur because we re-opened too early,” Squires said.

Dr. Gary Katula, member of the Yorkville School District 115 School Board and a doctor who specializes in family medicine through Rush Copley Medical Group, said during the April 27 remote school board meeting that he doesn't see the state of the COVID-19 changing very quickly. While at least Illinois had a little more time to prepare than places like New York, he said, those numbers are still high and the number of cases continues to rise.

Katula said Rush Copley still is running two full intensive care units and there is a good number of physicians on staff. Unfortunately, he said, he doesn't think anyone is going to see anything lighten up too quickly.

Katula said he believes the governor's actions in the days leading up to the meeting were very appropriate, as well as his rationale for those actions.

“We’re just going to have to buckle down for a little bit longer,” Katula said.

Squires said her bottom line is to encourage the public to keep taking the proper precautions, including washing their hands and socially distancing at least 6 feet away from others.

“The more people who do that, the more we can flatten that curve and the more we can resume to normal activity sooner rather than later,” Squires said.

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