Indiana’s governor decided Wednesday against reinstating tougher restrictions on businesses and crowd sizes despite the state’s sharp increases in COVID-19 hospitalizations and new infections, including a positive test for his top health adviser.
Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb announced he would extend his statewide mask order for another month while scolding those across the state who he said were showing disregard for the safety of others, putting the ability of schools to remain open and the health of those most at risk of severe illness from the virus in jeopardy.
“Those inactions are costing, just to be blunt, health care costs, lost wages, business failures. Don’t kid yourself, we’re all paying this bill,” Holcomb said.
“Throwing caution to the wind, ultimately ends up costing us all," he later went on to add. "It is the literal definition of whistling past the graveyard, pretending this isn’t around us.”
Holcomb decided three weeks ago to lift nearly all of Indiana’s restrictions while extending the mask mandate to this Saturday.
The state’s health commissioner, Dr. Kristina Box, announced by phone during the governor’s briefing that she, an adult daughter and her 23-month-old grandson tested positive for the coronavirus on Tuesday. Box said she didn’t yet have any symptoms, while her daughter and grandson have mild symptoms, and believed the infections stemmed from her grandson’s home day care site.
Holcomb wore a face mask during the online briefing from his Statehouse office for the first time, saying he would be undergoing a coronavirus test later Wednesday and planned to quarantine at the governor’s residence until he has the results. Some governor’s office staff members were also being tested.
Holcomb's Democratic challenger in the November election, Dr. Woody Myers, a former state health commissioner, said neither Holcomb nor President Donald Trump were showing leadership in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Myers said he wasn’t surprised Indiana’s coronavirus statistics were going in the wrong direction because many people were acting as if all activity was back to normal.
“It’s not possible in a health care crisis to, on the one hand, say, ‘We’ve got to be more vigilant, we’ve got to stop doing this, stop doing that’ and then, on the other hand, say, ‘Oh by the way, we’re going to leave it on the most-open stage there is,’” Myers said in an interview. “That’s inconsistent and no wonder the public is confused.”
Holcomb’s mask mandate and earlier executive orders limiting personal travel and businesses have angered some conservatives who maintain they will vote instead for Libertarian candidate Donald Rainwater, who flatly opposes the mask requirement.
The state Health Department on Wednesday more than doubled the number of counties designated as higher-risk locations for coronavirus spread. Twenty-two of Indiana’s 92 counties were placed in orange or red levels under the agency’s weekly tracking map update, while nine counties were at those levels last week.
The highest-risk counties are scattered across the state, with clusters in northeastern Indiana, some rural counties west of Lafayette and those around Evansville in the southwestern corner.
The 1,357 COVID-19 hospitalizations as of Tuesday put Indiana at its highest level since mid-May, the Health Department reported. Such hospitalizations have grown by two-thirds since Sept. 22 — the day before Holcomb announced the lifting of most statewide restrictions.
State officials added 14 more coronavirus deaths on Wednesday to raise the state’s death toll to 3,836, including confirmed and presumed coronavirus cases. That’s an increase of 109 deaths in the past week.
The Health Department’s daily update showed Indiana’s seven-day rolling average of newly confirmed COVID-19 infections was nearly 1,600 as of Tuesday, an increase of 85% increase from three weeks earlier.
Holcomb said he would consider tougher restrictions for hot spots around the state but didn’t indicate any move toward such statewide actions.
“Just like everything else we do around here, we have to look at the root causes,” Holcomb said. “And assuming that some blanket response will solve it — that’s being proven inaccurate.”
Concerns over more coronavirus illnesses and hospitalizations prompted health officials in northern Indiana’s St. Joseph County to send a letter Tuesday asking that in-person religious services be stopped through March.
Five clusters of coronavirus infections have been traced to those attending religious services in the South Bend area since late August, deputy county health officer Dr. Mark Fox told the South Bend Tribune. The health agency has also recently warned some bars and restaurants to follow safety measures or face possible closure.