QUINCY — A new report by a group of University of Texas at Austin researchers details how COVID-19 is spreading silently through American cities and towns, including in communities where only a handful of residents have tested positive for the virus.
According to the study, counties with just a single reported case are more than 50% likely to have a sustained, undetected outbreak, known as an epidemic. Public health officials say the epidemic is already taking place in these counties, even if test results do not indicate the presence of the virus.
Overall, the study finds, 70% of all counties in the United States — making up 94% of the country's population — are likely to have ongoing epidemics. The study defines an epidemic as an outbreak that grows exponentially instead of fizzling out on its own, eventually infecting a significant portion of the population.
With 11 people testing positive for the virus, Adams County Health Department Administrator Jerrod Welch said he agreed with the study that there is a very likelihood that community transmission of the virus is occurring in Adams County.
"In our situation, we don't have the epidemiology research that shows how the people who have tested positive are connected to one another. What that means is that they aren't getting the virus from one another, so it is very, very likely that we have community spread of the virus already," Welch said.
People who have been infected may have mild symptoms, or none at all, and can pass the disease to others. Symptoms for COVID-19 are typically fever, cough and shortness of breath.
"The virus is invisible, which makes it really hard to stop," Welch said. "I'd like to say that the community is still ahead of the curve, so to speak, because we have been very aggressive in testing because we are trying very hard to detect it as soon as possible."
Even in counties with no reported cases, such as Brown County, Ill., or Marion County, Mo., there is roughly a 9% chance that an undetected outbreak is already underway, according to the researchers.
"Right now, Brown County does not have any cases, but that does not mean the virus is not there," Welch said. "We are under no illusions that the virus is not there. We know in Brown County that they don't have a hospital or a facility to go and get tested, so if they were going to be tested they would go to either Jacksonville or Quincy. We also know that Brown County residents who may have COVID-19 are either asymptomatic or are not sick enough to seek medical attention."
Across the Mississippi River in Pike County, Mo., public health officials have experienced a spike in the number of people testing positive. Pike County, which is home to more than 18,000 people and the North East Missouri Correctional Center, has had four residents test positive for the virus. Only one person had tested positive for the virus on March 29.
According to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, Pike County now has more cases than any other county in the Northeast Missouri region. Officials with the Pike County Health Department, Home Health and Hospice agency did not respond to The Herald-Whig's request for an interview prior to press time.
With 283 people tested for COVID-19, Welch said he believes that the general public is beginning to acknowledge the gravity of the situation. Of that number, 204 Adams County residents have tested negative for the virus, while 68 tests remain pending for local residents.
"You can't ignore the numbers and the cases. Maybe some people needed to see these numbers to have some kind of validation for how serious this is," Welch said. He added that the Adams County Health Department has seen a significant increase in the number of hotline calls and requests for service from emergency personnel with ambulances.
"The pace of all of those things has really picked up in the last couple of days," Welch said.