BATESVILLE — Ripley County Health Officer Dr. David Welsh has been monitoring COVID-19 since December 2019.
“For myself, it was actually on my radar ahead of time,” Welsh said. “I’m on the Council on Science and Public Health (CSAPH) at the AMA (American Medical Association). So we were looking at the ramifications of COVID-19 as a councill starting back in December.”
The council discussed if COVID-19 would hit the United States and just how devastating the disease would be within the country.
Welsh began gathering information about COVID-19 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH) and his AMA contacts.
When COVID-19 began to spread across the United States and into Ripley County Welsh wasn’t surprised.
He and his colleagues asked themselves what steps needed to be taken to keep people safe.
Welsh said medical professionals realized the severity of the disease when it hit a nursing home in Washington state.
COVID-19 in Ripley County
When COVID-19 entered Ripley and surrounding counties it hit hard. Initially, the area including Decatur, Ripley and Franklin Counties had the highest COVID-19 infection rate per capita.
“I’m very grateful to the citizens of our counties that that has changed, that we have flattened the curve and our rate of increase has been greatly curtailed,” Welsh said. “People have done the things that our moms asked us to do. Stay home if sick, cover your mouth, wash your hands, all those things that we know helps with things that can be easily transmitted.”
According to the ISDH, Ripley County has reported 113 positive cases of COVID-19 and seven related deaths. A total of 1,707 tests have been conducted in Ripley County.
“The last several weeks have been very favorable,” Welsh said. “We had two positives last week that added to the list, but we had gone over a week without any positives at that point. The ship is turning but we want to make sure folks do not let up their efforts.”
Welsh emphasized it doesn’t take much to overwhelm critical access hospitals in the midst of a public health disaster.
“Between Decatur County, Franklin County and Ripley County we have about 78,000 people. We have 50 hospital beds. There are two critical access hospitals,” Welsh said. “So it doesn’t take a lot to get things overwhelmed. “
Welsh said the area has experienced disasters before, like the tornado that ravaged the town of Holton some years ago.
Many people were injured and it took a toll on local medical resources for a short time.
“COVID-19 is a different sort of disaster. It is ongoing. It’s like ripples on a pond,” Welsh said. “The good news is it is not our first contagious disease we’ve had to deal with.”
Welsh has been a county health officer for more than 25 years. He still has his notes from dealing with Ebola and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
Welsh attributes basic public health practices for limiting the negative impact of past outbreaks and COVID-19.
“Do the things mom taught us. Wash your hands, cover your mouth, stay home if you’re sick and keep a distance,” Welsh said. “Initially, we thought three feet was good enough. Then we found out we needed a little bit more and it was six to 10 feet. In cases where you can’t get that distance some kind of masking, shield or face covering was helpful.”
By the research
Over the past six months Welsh and physicians across the country have gained a wealth of knowledge by studying COVID-19.
Physicians began learning from the experiences of other countries including Italy and China. Welsh acknowledges China wasn’t as transparent in reporting COVID-19 information.
He says more research has been conducted throughout the world on COVID-19 than any other subject.
Doctors have found out just how contagious the disease is, how it is spread and how to best prevent its transmission. They’ve learned some may contract the disease and remain asymptomatic or they may not show signs of illness for five to seven days.
According to Welsh, random testing studies conducted by the Fairbanks School of Public Health and the ISDH show 45 percent of those infected with COVID-19 never display symptoms.
Information like this is only available because people are taking advantage of COVID-19 testing sites in Indiana. This is why Welsh encourages those who are invited by the state or those who believe they have COVID-19 to get tested.
COVID-19 testing is available in Ripley, Decatur and Dearborn Counties through the ISDH and OptumServe. Anyone may request to be tested from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday in Osgood through the end of June.
“Hopefully, if we have enough people taking advantage of it, that will get extended,” Welsh said. “I would like everybody possible to get tested so the more information we have the better we can know where we stand and be able to help folks.”
Welsh would like to remind local residents of the importance of wearing face masks in public settings. He says wearing masks can decrease the rate of transmission by 40 to 50 percent.
Welsh referenced a recent article he read that stated residents of Thailand were wearing face masks prior to COVID-19 due to poor air quality. Thus, the rate of transmission within the country was reduced.
Advice for those at risk
Welsh advises those who are at a higher risk to experience health complications as a result of contracting COVID-19 to continue taking extra precaution and keep practicing good public hygiene. Travel to crowded areas should be avoided if possible.
Local residents should continue to monitor themselves and family members for symptoms of COVID-19, which include cough, fever, loss of smell or taste and Gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms.
Those at a higher risk of health complications include those with heart disease, COPD, diabetes, those who take medication that lowers their immune response and those who are undergoing chemotherapy.
A resurgence in winter?
Welsh said there is a concern COVID-19 may make a resurgence in winter.
“We still don’t know what that’s going to look like. The problem is going to be a lot of the symptoms for COVID-19 mirror the typical flu,” Welsh said.
This year in particular, Welsh recommends everyone get a flu shot to help prevent this issue.
“The secret is our citizens”
Welsh credits the residents of Ripley, Decatur and Franklin counties for helping decrease the COVID-19 rate of transmission in the area.
“I’m very thankful for the efforts of our citizens, very proud of them. I have been contacted by folks from across the country wanting to know what’s the secret because they saw it was a confirmed hotspot and now people are watching the numbers for southeast Indiana,” Welsh said. “They are seeing that we’ve put a lid back on the boiling pot. They want to know what’s the secret. The secret is our citizens.”
Those with COVID-19 related questions or concerns may contact Welsh by phone at 812-934-4262 or by email at email@example.com.
The Ripley County Health Department may be contacted by phone at 812-689-5751. Questions may also be asked on the health department’s website https://www.ripleyhealth.com/covid-19.
The ISDH COVID-19 Helpline may also be contacted with questions from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. by calling 877-826-0011.