SPRINGFIELD — In the early weeks and months of COVID-19’s presence in Illinois, state health leaders have cautioned people, especially those downstate, that the novel coronavirus is likely in their community even if their rural county had yet to report a case.
But now that testing has surpassed 800,000 – more than 6 percent of the state’s population – it remains a mystery why two counties, which have run hundreds of tests between the two of them, have yet to report a single COVID-19 case.
Scott County, home to just fewer than 5,000 people in west-central Illinois, and Edgar County, home to just more than 17,000 people halfway down the Indiana border on the state’s eastern edge, have not reported a case of COVID-19 in the four months since the virus’ presence in Illinois was first confirmed in late January.
Scott and Edgar counties’ zero cases are not for a lack of testing, however, according to state and local statistics. Just over 4 percent of Scott County’s population – about 200 residents – has been tested, according to Illinois Department of Public Health data updated Wednesday.
As of Wednesday morning, 663 Edgar County residents had been tested and results on seven of those are pending, said Monica Dunn, assistant administrator for the Edgar County Public Health Department.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with the testing, it just has to do with the fact that the people who have been tested have not tested positive,” she said.
Dunn said there are no problems with testing in Edgar County and at testing sites in surrounding locations in Champaign, Mattoon and Terre Haute, Indiana.
“We are reporting just like every other county,” she said “…(Hospitals) are doing the same testing on Edgar County residents that they’re doing on residents of any other county, so it’s just the way things have played out so far.”
Dunn also said Illinois’ county case totals are based on residency, so no matter where someone gets tested, their data is included in their home county’s totals. She said that if an Edgar County resident tested positive in Indiana, the state would inform Illinois.
“They have to call us immediately,” she said. “The reporting is very strict.”
A question to the Indiana State Department of Health to confirm that Edgar County residents have not been included in its case count went unreturned Wednesday.
Scott County Health Department Administrator Steve Shireman credits his county’s lack of cases partially to residents closely obeying health precautions and state orders.
“Part of it is we’ve just been fortunate,” he said. “Our people have been pretty good about following the guidelines. When I go out I see people wearing masks and trying to avoid any potential exposures.”
Just because the counties have not officially reported a case does not mean no residents have had the virus, both officials said.
“People that aren’t exhibiting symptoms don’t know that they need to be tested,” Dunn said.
She also said the lack of available testing early in the outbreak, as well as restrictions on that limited testing, might have kept Edgar County residents with COVID-19 from getting tested.
“I am quite certain that the virus is among us, we just haven’t had anybody get tested that tested positive,” Dunn said.
She added that it is “absolutely” possible for Edgar County to see its first case in the future.
Shireman said he “perhaps would suspect” that one or more Scott County residents has had the virus but did not feel sick enough to get tested. He added that there also hasn’t been any county resident to have a positive antibody test result.
He said Scott County has had “a lot of close calls” with possible cases in packing plants, as well as “several” suspected cases among residents who did not turn out to be COVID-19 positive.
“I would just hope that people remain vigilant and try to follow the guidelines to the best of their possibility, try to avoid any unnecessary exposures and do the best to try to keep us on the path toward reopening,” Shireman said.
“Social distancing, wearing masks and hand washing and not touching your face,” Dunn said, “all of those are very important, and people need to continue following those guidelines.”
The last time an Illinois county reported its first case was Putnam County on May 15.
Although coronavirus has not been officially detected in every U.S. county, each county in three of Illinois’ bordering states, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan’s lower peninsula, have reported at least one case. Even the closest states to Illinois in population, Ohio and Pennsylvania, which have about one-third and two-thirds of Illinois’ cases, respectively, have reported cases in every county.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.