PITTSBURG — Although the number of COVID-19 cases among Pittsburg State University students has decreased sharply since the outbreak at the start of the fall semester, Crawford County health officials are increasingly concerned about the spread of the coronavirus among older area residents.

"COVID-19 case numbers in Crawford County have begun to increase from the previous weeks with a higher percent positive for those tested," the county health department said in a press release Friday. "There has been a shift from the younger, healthier population to the older, more vulnerable population. As a result, we are seeing a significant rise in hospitalizations over the past week. It is too early to know if this trend will continue, but our health officers have greater concern about the current impact on our community and they are monitoring the situation closely."

According to information on the county website there were 121 active COVID-19 cases in isolation and more than 600 close contacts of positive cases in quarantine as of Friday. There have been 10 COVID-19 deaths in the county since the start of the pandemic.

Earlier in the week, Ascension Via Christi announced it would implement stricter visitation measures in an effort to protect patients and others at the hospital. These include limiting visitors to one per patient, continued door screening of those entering the hospital, and limiting visitors’ movements within the hospital to going to and from the patient’s room that they are visiting.

"Despite the impact of COVID on our medical systems, our hospitals and clinics have safeguards in place to be able to continue to take care of your acute and chronic healthcare needs," the county health department noted in its press release. "Please do not delay healthcare due to concerns related to COVID-19, especially if you are having symptoms such as chest pain, stroke symptoms, or other serious symptoms."

While there were once more than 100 positive cases tied to PSU in isolation and hundreds more close contacts in quarantine, as of Wednesday there had been only three positive cases in isolation over the past week, which was down from 12 the previous week.

Early in the semester PSU had a memorandum of understanding with La Quinta Inn & Suites to allow university students in isolation or quarantine to stay at the hotel, where they would be further removed from the rest of the student population. That agreement has since been terminated, however, and no students or anyone else has been staying at the La Quinta for isolation or quarantine-related reasons for more than a month, according to Devin Gorman, executive director of the Crawford County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Despite the apparent improvement in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 among younger people, though, county health officials worry that cases are going undetected, as some who should be getting tested are avoiding doing so.

"With the current spread of the virus in the community, there is growing concern that individuals are avoiding testing so they are not impacted by isolation and quarantine," the county health department said in its release Friday. "The unfortunate effect of this is that the chain of transmission is not stopped and further spread to our vulnerable family members and neighbors occur. If you are experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19, it is important that you take the time to get tested. Testing also allows us to identify and closely monitor those at risk for severe disease so intervention can be initiated early if needed."