While the COVID-19 pandemic is clearly not over, the picture in southeast Iowa is very different today than it was a month ago.

State officials counted no new cases in Wapello County, the center of the pandemic for the region for Monday or Tuesday. While new cases were found on Wednesday, the week marked the first time since April that the county went consecutive days without new cases being found.

It’s reasonable to wonder whether testing levels are part of the reason for the lull. There were only 61 tests for Wapello County residents on those two days combined, a far cry from the peak of 251 on May 30. But remember where things once stood. On May 14 there were 65 tests conducted, and 21 came back positive.

Even if you assume, as we must, that there remain some undetected cases out there, it’s clear the virus is not spreading as widely or as fast as it was previously. The state now counts more than 600 Wapello County residents as recovered, and the number of known cases has fallen well below 100.

The virus never spread as far in surrounding counties. Most of the 112 known cases in Mahaska County, the second-highest area total, were connected to an outbreak at a long-term care facility. And the number of newly-confirmed cases in the past week remains low, even if you add together Wapello County and all of its neighbors.

Now comes the big question: How do we keep things moving this direction?

It’s literally a multi-million dollar question. At stake is not just a reduction in the anxiety that arrived as the virus exploded in the area, but the ability of southeast Iowa residents to resume their lives in something resembling a normal fashion. That means more than just being able to go out to eat or watch high school sports. It means being able to do so safely.

There is, obviously, no 100 percent guarantee. Any event with more people than are in your own household could include people who have the COVID-19 virus and who are capable of passing it on. But there are clear steps that can and should be taken.

Keep washing your hands with soap and water. Cover your coughs and sneezes. Stay home if you’re sick. Those bits of advice remain unchanged since the pandemic began.

To that, experts have added the strong recommendation that people wear a mask when in public. A mask can trap droplets from coughs or sneezes that the virus travels in. Is it perfect? No. But it does help.

Here’s what the Mayo Clinic says on its website: “Can face masks help prevent the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19? Yes, face masks combined with other preventive measures, such as frequent hand-washing and social distancing, help slow the spread of the virus.”

We note that the statement stresses that masks alone are not a solution, but that they are best used in combination with other steps. It’s sound advice, and it fits the reality that no single step will bring this pandemic to an end at this time.

Southeast Iowa has made progress. It does seem a corner has been turned. But it will take a concerted effort to ensure that progress is not lost to carelessness in the coming months.

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