A day after Indiana's governor announced plans to relax statewide precautions meant to stem coronavirus spread, the state's top health official cautioned Hoosiers on Wednesday that it's still too early to return to “normal” life.
Gov. Eric Holcomb said Tuesday that he would lift the statewide mask mandate and remaining COVID-19 business restrictions in two weeks. The Republican governor noted the state’s steep declines in coronavirus hospitalization and deaths rates along with the growing number of people fully vaccinated justify the steps starting April 6.
Still, the pandemic “is far from over,” state Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box said Wednesday. Indiana records new cases of COVID-19 every day, she continued, and state health officials are “closely watching” variant strains of the virus.
“Whether it’s called a mask mandate, or it’s called a mask advisory, we have made it very clear,” Box said. “Wearing our masks to prevent the spread of this virus to other individuals and prevent ourselves from becoming infected, social distancing, washing our hands, staying home when we're sick — those mitigation measures do not change.”
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Giving a soft defense of the governor's announced changes, Box said Indiana is “positioned very well” in its ongoing COVID-19 response, she added, but only as long as individuals continue to wear masks and continue other social precautions.
Holcomb said Wednesday that state leaders will continue to consult data for future decision-making, emphasizing that “this is by no means a mission accomplished moment — this is proceed with caution."
More than 1.4 million Hoosiers under the age of 16 remain ineligible to be vaccinated, Box said, noting it’s also “imperative” that every eligible adult gets inoculated when statewide eligibility opens to all residents starting March 31.
But while the state expects to receive 38,000 doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week — in addition to an overall increase in federal shipments of vaccine — Box said many vaccine appointments are being scheduled several weeks in advance to prevent overbooking. Wait times for vaccine appointments could be extended from three weeks to upward of six weeks, delaying state health officials' goal to fully vaccinate all individuals aged 16 and older by June.
“We are under the belief that we will continue to get increasing doses of vaccine,” Box said, adding that state officials anticipate having enough doses of vaccine available for all Hoosiers by May. “But we know that it can be frustrating to have to wait ... please be patient. There will be a vaccine for everyone who wants one."
Nearly 1.7 million Hoosiers have received at least their first dose of vaccine, Box said, and almost 1 million people across Indiana are now fully vaccinated, which represents a third of the state’s population aged 16 and older.
So far, 73% of Hoosiers aged 80 and older, and 76% of those aged 70 to 79, have scheduled or received a vaccine, Box said. Those vaccination rates drop to 64% for those aged 60 to 69, and 45% for Hoosiers between the ages of 50 and 59.
Twenty-nine percent of those aged 40 to 49 have also signed up to get vaccinated since qualifying for shots in the last week.
Nearly 148,000 first and second doses have also been administered to residents and staff in long term care facilities.
Ramping up the state's vaccine rollout, state officials announced another mass vaccination site to open at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway beginning April 1. The 16-day clinic is anticipated to offer 96,000 vaccinations of single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
The state is also finalizing plans to distribute vaccines directly to large businesses across Indiana, Box said. The goal is to open workplace clinics in April.
The state Department of Health on Wednesday reported 976 new coronavirus infections, bringing the total number of Hoosiers known to have the virus up to 680,046.
Indiana has additionally recorded almost 12,975 confirmed or presumed coronavirus-related deaths over the past year.
The state Department of Health’s weekly tracking map updated Wednesday shows no counties in the highest-risk red category for the sixth week in a row. Only east central Indiana’s Blackford County is listed in the next-riskiest orange category.
Twenty-five counties remain in the moderate-risk yellow rating, and 66 counties are labeled in the lowest-risk blue category.