7/29/20 Esteban Ramirez

In response to the increase in coronavirus cases among Purdue employees, Dr. Esteban Ramirez, who leads the Protect Purdue Health Center, sent an urgent message: "Don't let your mask down."

The effort to Protect Purdue seemed imperiled this week, as three consecutive days yielded a spiked positivity rate and COVID-19 case numbers higher than any yet witnessed through the University’s testing program.

Fully 394 positive tests in the last seven days brought Purdue to its highest seven-day positivity rate yet, which the Protect Purdue dashboard had at 6.19% on Monday. The seven-day rate on the first day of November was 4.21%.

Over three-fourths of the 431 active cases on campus came in the record-setting three-day period, with 76 on Tuesday, 115 on Wednesday and 71 on Thursday.

Purdue reports test results two days after they’ve been administered, so the most recent update is Saturday, when 33 new coronavirus cases were tallied on the dashboard out of 388 tests conducted. That registers a one-day positivity rate of 8.5%.

A higher percentage of employees also registered positive test results in the past seven days. Of the 394 positive tests reported in that period, 39 were among employees, which is about 67% higher than the ratio of employees to overall positive tests that Purdue has tracked since Aug. 1.

In response to the alarming rises, Dr. Esteban Ramirez, chief medical officer of the Protect Purdue Health Center, sent an urgent message Friday to staff and students: “Don’t let your mask down.”

“I urge you to fight the COVID fatigue and double down on the Protect Purdue Pledge, knowing that each and every action has a consequence,” Ramirez wrote. “Even a quick trip for coffee where we get lax with our masks or social distancing, or a shared ride where we don’t mask up can unknowingly lead to spread of the virus.”

Purdue’s contact-tracing programs indicate that spread of the coronavirus isn’t happening so much in classrooms, labs or offices, he added. Rather, people are eating at restaurants, going to bars, sharing rides or attending indoor gatherings with family and friends.

Even small indoor gatherings are problematic, and Tippecanoe County health department administrator Khala Hochstedler fears that the onset of the holidays will introduce lenient behaviors around family members.

The county’s numbers, too, show a situation more dire than ever.

The three highest single-day increases since the pandemic began were recorded from Wednesday to Saturday, when 153 were counted, according to the Indiana State Department of Health dashboard. Nine of 22 total deaths since March have occurred in the past three weeks. Hospitalizations have surged past peaks observed in the spring.

More than 120 new cases in Tippecanoe County were reported in Monday's update of the ISDH dashboard. The increase brought the county's seven-day positivity rate to 7.3%, the highest it has been this fall.

Short, quick visits with family and friends that were sworn off in March when fears of COVID-19’s spread were more intense are showing a resurgence, Hochstedler said.

Community spread is now the main source of transmission, she added. No major clusters are responsible.

“I understand that everyone is tired of COVID-19, but we really need to be thinking about what we’re doing outside of work and in our free time, and not be relaxed about getting around people that we don’t live with,” Hochstedler said. “And if you’re going to hang out with your friends or see a family member that doesn’t reside in your household, y’all really need to be masked up, at this point.”

Purdue said in a press release Thursday it aims to help students plan a coronavirus test before returning home for Thanksgiving in just over two weeks.

The University recommends students who opt to travel out of West Lafayette schedule tests at local sites when they arrive to their hometowns. The Department of Health and Human Services lists pharmacies such as CVS Health and Walgreens that administer no-cost tests.

“Staying vigilant now,” Ramirez said, “will help ensure that you keep your family and loved ones safe when you go home or if you visit others for Thanksgiving.”

City Editor Carson Bailey contributed reporting to this story.