Coronavirus: Cases On Rise Again, Holcomb Doesn’t Reimpose Statewide Restrictions
Gov. Eric Holcomb doesn’t reimpose statewide restrictions. Indiana Department of Health officials strongly urge masks in school, but aren’t requiring them. And a few local governments begin reinstating mask requirements.
The Indiana Department of Health stopped updating its COVID-19 data on Saturdays and Sundays at the end of June. But from July 23 to July 29, nearly 7,000 Hoosiers tested positive for COVID-19 – a 60 percent increase from the week before, and the highest reported in a week since the first week of May.
The average number of new COVID-19 cases over the last few days is nearly triple what it was a month ago. That’s the biggest month-to-month increase since April 2020 – when Indiana was under a "Stay-At-Home" order.
State health officials said that’s being driven by the delta variant – a more infectious variant of the virus that spreads as easily as chicken pox. Nearly 95 percent of sampled COVID-19 cases in Indiana have been identified as delta in the last month.
June’s daily cases reached a pandemic-low average – just 284 cases per day. But July’s average is more than 570 cases per day. The last week averaged more than 990 new cases per day.
Hospitalizations have more than doubled in the last month, from a low on July 3 of 371 COVID-19 hospitalizations to 755 reported on July 29.
But deaths have remained low: July averaged about three deaths per day, compared to June’s average of six.
THE STATE’S RESPONSE
Gov. Eric Holcomb opted not to reimpose any COVID-19 restrictions Thursday as he extended the state’s public health emergency for another month.
The only executive actions Holcomb continued include temporary licensing of retired and out-of-state health care workers; suspension of payment requirements for Medicaid and the Healthy Indiana Plan; an expanded list of people who can provide COVID-19 vaccinations, including Emergency Medical Technicians and trained National Guardsmen; and waiving any penalties or interest on state taxes owed on unemployment benefits during the pandemic.
Holcomb defended his decision not to reinstate restrictions and said the situation is very different.
“There was no playbook and there was no resources to test and to trace and to vaccinate," Holcomb said. "And clearly, vaccination is the way out of this.”
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Holcomb’s message now is personal responsibility.
“The role of our state government is to provide the opportunity and we’ve made it easy," Holcomb said. "We have tried to remove every barrier for individuals to be safe, to be vaccinated.”
State Health Commissioner Dr. Kris Box said keeping kids in school requires multiple strategies.
“Masking and vaccination, contact tracing and isolation and quarantine will allow us to achieve that goal.”
But Box added that Indiana is a state that prefers local elected officials to make decisions like whether to require masks and that she respects that desire.
Box noted she’s ordering all schools to report any positive COVID-19 cases among students, teachers and staff.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday reversed course on its mask guidance, once again suggesting all individuals wear masks indoors in areas where COVID-19 cases are surging.
Here’s what else we learned from the CDC’s Director Rochelle Walensky:
- Vaccinated people represent a “very small amount of transmission” in the U.S. Vaccines provide an estimated 7-fold reduction in risk of infection from the more contagious delta variant, and a 20-fold reduction in risk of hospitalization or death.
- The delta variant now makes up eight of 10 new COVID cases nationwide.
- On rare occasions, a vaccinated person can contract the delta variant. Ongoing CDC investigations suggest that people with breakthrough infections with the delta variant may be contagious.
- In areas with “high or substantial transmission,” the CDC recommends all individuals, including those who are vaccinated, wear masks in indoor settings.
- CDC recommends everyone in K-12 schools wear a mask indoors, regardless of vaccination status.
- With only 30 percent of adolescents ages 12 to 17 fully vaccinated and schools starting to return, the new mask recommendation is intended to keep students and staff safe. Children under 12 are still not eligible for the vaccine.
- CDC officials say children should return to in-person learning full-time in the fall but with protections in place.
- The vaccines that are currently available offer significant protection against existing variants. The concern is that if cases continue to surge, new variants could arise that may be able to evade vaccines.
The CDC’s definition of “high or substantial transmission” varies from the state’s metrics map.
For example: Jennings and Fountain counties were both rated blue last week by IDOH – minimal community spread based on positivity and rate per 100,000 residents. But the CDC’s guidance focuses almost exclusively on rate per 100,000 residents, so both of those counties are red on their map – high transmission.
Purdue University and the City of West Lafayette both announced on Friday they will reinstate indoor mask mandates for students, staff, and visitors to campus or city buildings regardless of vaccination status.
In their decision, Purdue officials cited both new guidance from the CDC and concerns about local hospital capacity. Local hospital officials have warned they are already full from a mix of COVID-19 and unrelated illnesses.
“Like everyone we hope the worst of the pandemic is behind us,” said Purdue Chief Medical Officer Dr. Esteban Ramirez in a statement. “But our approach must continue to adapt to changing dynamics, just as we’re seeing cities, corporations, and other institutions do in recent days.”
Across the state, COVID-19 cases are spiking higher than they have in months. Tippecanoe County’s Health Officer Dr. Jeremy Adler raised the alarm last week as the county’s positivity rate passed 6 percent, recommending that people begin masking while in indoor public spaces regardless of vaccination status.
Monroe County officials may reinstitute the local mask mandate when the Board of Commissioners convene Wednesday morning.
Health administrator Penny Caudill said a local surge in COVID cases and the fact that only 56.7 percent of the eligible population is fully vaccinated is leading the decision.
"The virus is spreading among all ages and we have a large number of the community still susceptible because they are unvaccinated," said Caudill.
The change in policy would mean required masks inside all public establishments, which includes while entering and exiting bars and restaurants.
"When we [county] removed the health regulations earlier this summer, vaccinations were rising and cases were dropping, and we fully expected that to continue. Unfortunately, it has not," said Caudill.
Gov. Eric Holcomb said he’ll be monitoring Indiana’s COVID-19 data as the State Fair begins. But he’s convinced it will be safe.
The State Fair typically draws nearly 1 million people over its run of less than three weeks. And Indiana is in the middle of the sharpest spike in daily COVID-19 cases since the pandemic’s earliest days.
The Fair doesn’t have any mandated COVID-19 restrictions for its guests. But Holcomb said, if people want to feel more comfortable, they’re free to wear a mask.
“That is one way to add another extra layer of not just peace of mind, but safety,” Holcomb said.
The Indiana Law Enforcement Academy – which trains the majority of police across the state – temporarily halted operations because of a COVID-19 outbreak.
The training facility, based in central Indiana, reported that as of Wednesday morning, 10 students had tested positive, with nine more getting re-tested. And 50 students – nearly half the class – have to quarantine because they’re either close contacts or symptomatic.
It said a majority of the current class of 117 is unvaccinated.