A COVID-19 particle is pictured in this image provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC/CONTRIBUTED PHOTO]

After a five-week decline in COVID-19 cases that dropped Baker County into the state’s lowest risk level starting Feb. 12, the case rate is rising again.

The county reported 16 new cases over three days, Feb. 21-23.

That’s the highest three-day total since 20 cases were counted Jan. 14-16.

County Commissioner Mark Bennett said he talked with Nancy Staten, director of the Baker County Health Department, on Tuesday, Feb. 23, and he said contact tracing linked the recent cases to families and small group gatherings.

Those were also the source of many of the county’s cases in November, December and January, Bennett said.

“I think we’ll see these (clusters of cases) from time to time,” he said Wednesday morning, Feb. 24.

The rise in daily cases coincides with the first three days of the current 14-day measuring period — Feb. 21 through March 6 — that will determine the county’s risk level from March 12-25.

To remain in the lowest risk category, which has the least-severe restrictions on businesses and other activities, the county must have fewer than 30 new virus cases during the two-week measuring period.

With 16 new cases in the first three days, that means the county could have no more than 13 cases over the final 11 days of the measuring period.

Bennett said he has asked state health officials — to no avail thus far — to consider the details of virus cases, rather than raw numbers alone, in setting the county’s risk level.

He said he shares the sentiments of Matt Scarfo, a Union County commissioner, who has made similar requests to the state.

The issue, Bennett said, is that not all COVID-19 cases represent the same level of risk for spreading the virus.

If multiple members of one household are infected, but the entire household then quarantines, those people aren’t likely to spread the virus in the community, Bennett said, citing one example.

Yet the state counts all of those cases in determining the county’s risk level.

With contact tracing, Bennett said, the county can “get a handle pretty quickly” on situations when multiple members of the same household are infected.

In the meantime, Bennett urges residents to take the same precautions that have been recommended for almost a year, including social distancing, wearing a mask when required and when distancing isn’t possible, and frequent hand-washing.

If Baker County were to move from the lowest risk to moderate starting March 12, the capacity limits for restaurants, bars, gyms and other businesses would change.

If the county has between 30 and 44 new cases for the Feb. 21 through March 6 period, it would move to the moderate-risk category on March 12.

Differences in restrictions between the low and moderate categories include:

Restaurants and bars

• Lowest risk: Indoor dining up to 50% of capacity; up to eight diners per table; midnight closing time

• Moderate risk: Indoor dining up to 50% of capacity or 100 total people, including staff, whichever is fewer; up to six diners per table; 11 p.m. closing time

Gyms, fitness centers, indoor pools, indoor school sports

• Lowest risk: Maximum of 50% of capacity

• Moderate risk: Maximum of 50% of capacity or 100 people, whichever is fewer

Theaters, museums, other indoor entertainment

• Lowest risk: Maximum of 50% of capacity; midnight closing time

• Moderate risk: Maximum of 50% of capacity or 100 people, whichever is fewer; 11 p.m. closing time

Churches, funeral homes and mortuaries

• Lowest risk: Indoors, up to 75% of capacity; outdoors up to 300 people

• Moderate risk: Indoors, up to 50% of capacity or 150 people, whichever is fewer; outdoors up to 250 people

Outdoor recreation, including high school and middle school sports

• Lowest risk: Maximum of 300 people

• Moderate risk: Maximum of 150 people

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