Not just bars and restaurants: Large gatherings source of COVID-19 spread in county, region

Contact tracing data shows weddings, parties, reunions contribute greatly to spread

While the closing of restaurants and bars to indoor dining has received much attention, there's a third element to the restrictions put in place for DeKalb County's health region, and county Health Administrator Lisa Gonzalez said it's an important one.

Large gatherings were capped at 25 people or 25% of room capacity beginning last week. Gonzalez said these gatherings can range from weddings to church to graduation parties. Gonzalez said she saw a report from within the region about a quinceanera that had multiple cases tied back to it and mentioned that youth sports at both the club and IHSA levels were sources of spread as well.

“What we’re really trying to do is encourage people to limit participation in large gatherings at this time,” Gonzalez said. “But people are going to be attending these events. We’d really encourage, with nicer weather right now anyway, they consider attending outdoor events because the studies show that when you’re indoors and the ventilation isn’t as good, the spread ends up being greater.”

Region 1, which includes DeKalb up to Rockford and out to the Iowa border, went into these restrictions after its seven-day rolling positivity average rose above 8% for three days. As of Monday, it was 8.8% – data is presented on a three-day lag. DeKalb has had a lower positivity rate than the regional average and was at 7.8% on Monday.

Gonzalez said she didn't have specific numbers tied to specific events. But according to information released by the governor's office earlier this week, contact tracing showed 2,549 cases out of a sample of about 18,000 fell under the "other" category, which includes family gatherings, weddings, college parties, vacations and other similar activities.

It was the single biggest contributor in the study, which looked at locations identified by those sick from COVID-19 when asked where they visited or worked within the past 14 days. The total was even higher than for restaurants and bars, which had 2,300 cases reported in the study, compiled from data reported by 69 of 97 counties in the state.

Gonzalez said that many times, these large gatherings don't feature any safety protocols at all, citing off-campus parties near NIU as an example. The school was closed for two weeks last month and transitioned to remote learning after cases surged after Labor Day weekend.

"I can tell you early on at NIU we don't think there was much social distancing or masking happening," Gonzalez said. "The good news is that at NIU we're not seeing the number of cases we were early on. That tells me they're making different choices now."

But she said sometimes some groups do follow social distancing and mask guidelines and still have cases.

“I mentioned church gatherings – they are following the guidelines and there is still some spread that happens,” Gonzalez said. “I think it’s hard to say by event, but it’s likely they are not following the guidance as written as the spread is happening and we’re hearing about it.”

Gonzalez said that schools haven’t been a big source of community spread.

“We are seeing sporadic activity in schools, but we’re not seeing outbreaks in the schools,” Gonzalez said. “There may be a positive case, but what we’ve seen so far anyway is that case is being exposed outside of school and then being excluded from school because they showed a symptom or have been exposed to a positive.”

In the county, most of the smaller districts are back in session in at least hybrid, if not fully in-person models. Both Sycamore and DeKalb are eyeing returns to the classroom within a month.

Gonzalez said she felt the larger districts can safely open.

“I can only compare to other larger counties that have opened up,” Gonzalez said. “Obviously, if you open up, there is a higher risk of spread. But if schools take a proactive approach with their own mitigation strategies within the schools, there have been schools that have been able to remain open and functioning. That tells me if the right processes are in place, they can reduce the spread significantly. But just by opening up you increase the risk of spreading COVID further.”

Gonzalez said she didn’t readily have available specific numbers tied to a particular gathering or, for instance, how many cases stemmed from DeKalb County events that contact tracing showed was a source of infection.

“The community spread is there, we know that definitively,” Gonzalez said. “When there are large events, that community spread will only spread further.”

Gonzalez said that was true of events as well. Following guidelines from the Centers Disease Control and Prevention and the Illinois Department of Public Health can help lower the risk of community spread.

“I definitely empathize with those who have to make that decision at this time,” Gonzalez said. “However, there is very detailed guidance about how to have events safely as far as limiting numbers – that’s a huge one. But also incorporating social distancing where possible, masking, hand-washing and sanitation is also really important. We’re not out to find these kinds of events, but we are getting businesses reported to us, obviously.”