Will County health officials say multiple people who attended a privately held prom with hundreds of students and chaperones in northwest Indiana last week have tested positive for COVID-19 - issuing a stern warning against holding similar events in the future as the coronavirus pandemic continues.
In speaking to multiple residents of the Frankfort area who tested positive for coronavirus, the Will County Health Department said in a statement Thursday that contact tracers "discovered a similar story."
"They had attended a party at an orchard in Hobart, Indiana, perhaps designed as a substitute for missed proms at area high schools," the statement reads.
Officials said up to 270 people, both high school students and chaperones, attended the event. Illinois' current phase of its reopening plan allows for gatherings of up to 50 people, while Indiana's size limit on gatherings sits at 250 people.
Organizers said it was for students at Lincoln Way East High School, and that masks were provided to everyone who attended, with proceeds generated from an online campaign and ticket sales.
“We spaced out tables, we cut down on the number of people who could sit at tables, and we cut down on the number of people we could have at the event,” Caeelin Flaherty, a student organizer, said.
The Will County Health Department did not specify how many people had tested positive, or how many people contact tracers had spoken with after the event - but epidemiologist Alpesh Patel urged anyone who attended the event to first do "the right thing."
“If you are symptomatic (such as with the commonly recognized fever, dry cough, shortness of breath, sore throat), you need to isolate yourself immediately and get tested," Patel said. "If you are not symptomatic but attended this event, it is absolutely necessary to quarantine yourself for 14 days, and self-monitor for the symptoms, including taking your temperature at least three times daily.”
Patel also warned that the event must be taken as a "serious lesson" to follow guidance from health experts.
"We have people finding their ways to events, out of town or out of state, where the important precautions are not being observed. You need to avoid any gatherings where social distancing cannot be practiced because it is simply impossible, and proper protection, such as the wearing of masks, is being ignored," Patel said.
“We continue to tell people DO NOT HOST these types of events, and that parents need to be more careful about allowing their kids to attend such events. Parents need to look out for lapses of good judgment, especially at times like this," the statement continued.
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Will County health officials noted that Illinois' Region 7, one of 11 the state is divided into to allow for a more targeted approach to coronavirus response and potential mitigations, was showing a seven-day run of increases in the positivity rate in testing as of Thursday.
That region includes Will and Kankakee counties. Will County Health Department Director Sue Olenek saying the increase serves as an indication that residents "must be on alert, and must observe precautions that have been talked about since the start of the pandemic" to slow the spread of the virus and avoid more restrictions on businesses and activities.
“We all need to do our part and heed to the precautions if we want to see better results," Olenek said. "When socializing and congregating started to creep back up around July 4, people began to relax and forget about observing social distancing and being fully masked while in public. If we do not want to go back to the 'stay at home' order, we need to follow these precautions seriously at all times."
Some parents in the Frankfort area said earlier in the week that they were concerned by an apparent uptick in coronavirus cases and illnesses among teens in the days after the event.
"When you bring that many people together, even if you’re social distancing, you are taking a risk,” Kristin Eaton, a mother of a Lincoln Way East student, said.
Eaton says that her son was called into work this week because four other teens, coworkers of his, had to call off because they were being forced to quarantine. She added that photos on social media showed some at the prom not wearing masks and not social distancing, despite organizers' insistence that they were adamant in asking attendees to follow the rules.
“We tried to do everything correctly for CDC guidelines and Indiana state guidelines,” Flaherty said.
Dr. Sital Bhargava said that any kids who potentially were exposed to COVID-19 could now be exposing others to the virus as well, adding that attending an event in another state with different restrictions in place isn’t helpful in terms of stopping the spread of the virus.
“I don’t think they could have had that many kids and done it safely,” Bhargava said. “I think it had to be smaller groups.”