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Health official: Basketball game contributed to spread of COVID-19 in rural Indiana ‘hot spot’

GREENSBURG, Ind. (WISH) ⁠— Health officials said they were unable to pinpoint the source of a COVID-19 outbreak in Decatur County, a pandemic “hot spot” with one of the nation’s highest per-capita death rates, but suggested a high school basketball sectional championship game contributed to community spread.

The largely rural county of approximately 26,000 reported 10.5 coronavirus-related deaths per 10,000 residents, more than twice the death rate in any other Indiana county, according to data released Thursday by the state health department.

Decatur County reported 75.3 confirmed COVID-19 cases per 10,000 residents, second only to Cass County, where officials declared a public emergency Monday after hundreds of pork plant workers tested positive for the virus.

“We don’t have any evidence to suggest that it’s any one particular place,” said Sean Durbin, Decatur County’s public health preparedness coordinator. “This is going to take a lot of forensic investigation to try and find out where this started.”

Residents suggested a Honda Manufacturing plant in Greensburg contributed to Decatur County’s positive case count. It employs several hundred more people than the Tyson Foods meat packing plant in Cass County.

However, the auto factory suspended operations March 23 and did not appear to be the source of significant community spread, Durbin said.

Only one Honda contractor reported testing positive for COVID-19, according to the company.

Durbin also refuted the theory that truck drivers traveling between Indianapolis and Cincinnati along I-74 spread the virus among residents. There was no evidence linking local cases to either of the county’s two truck stops, he said.

“We did have two social events that occurred early in this and we do know [there was] some spread within,” Durbin told News 8. “Is that where it started? No.”

Contact tracing revealed the virus spread at a South Decatur High School basketball game and a church-organized walk before public health officials imposed restrictions on large gatherings, according to Durbin.

The outbreak may have been deadlier in Decatur County because of its older population, said Dr. Wayne Perry, chief of staff at Decatur County Memorial Hospital.

Sixteen point seven percent of Decatur County residents are 65 years and older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, compared to 12.6% of Marion County residents.

Perry cautioned against reading too much into case counts; increasing testing availability will result in more confirmed cases.

Test positivity rates can also fluctuate with changes in testing protocol, he said; testing only symptomatic people with known or suspected exposure will result in a higher positivity rate.

“When we do a test based on those guidelines, it’s very likely to come back positive because we’re screening the right people,” Perry told News 8. “Those parameters boosted our early numbers. But as this all shakes out, I think we’re going to find that, with additional testing in other areas, [infection] rates are quite similar.”

However, Marion County has a slightly higher per-capita test rate than Decatur County, according to state health data. Decatur County has 30% more positive cases per 10,000 people and more than three times as many deaths per 10,000 people.

“We have got to continue to treat this as if everybody that’s next to you has it,” said Durbin, who is physically distancing from his family and has yet to meet his grandson due to coronavirus concerns.