Indiana's top health officials made pleas Friday for people to get vaccinated and continue wearing masks as an especially contagious coronavirus variant spreads throughout the state, but they said they had no plans to reinstate statewide health mandates.
In recent weeks, the number of new COVID-19 cases in Indiana “bounced back up” to rates comparable to a year ago, the state’s health commissioner, Dr. Kristina Box, said during a news conference. Although the state had well below 2,000 new confirmed cases per week in June, it is now seeing 4,000 to 6,000 cases per week.
The biggest threat is from the delta variant, which spreads more easily than previous versions of the coronavirus. Tests conducted this month on a sample of Indiana’s cases showed that as of Friday, more than 94% of them were the “highly viral” strain.
Although Box emphasized that “we have the most powerful tool available to prevent disease in the form of three highly effective vaccines,” only about 44% of Indiana’s total population, including children younger than 12 who aren’t eligible, is fully vaccinated against the virus. That lags behind the national average of 49.4% and far behind the state with the highest vaccination rate, Vermont, where more than two-thirds of the population — 67.4% — is inoculated.
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Since the beginning of the month, the percentage of fully vaccinated individuals has risen somewhat in every age group, said the state health department's chief medical officer, Dr. Lindsay Weaver. The biggest increase has been among the 12- to 15-year-olds, who have gone from 17% fully vaccinated to 21%. The next highest increase has been among Hoosiers ages 16 to 19, who are now more than 34% vaccinated.
With schools returning at full capacity, Box said Indiana still doesn't have enough students who are vaccinated. She said state health officials are “strongly recommending” that every district follow the CDC’s recommendations for masking, vaccinations, contact tracing and quarantining.
But specific action plans “are local decisions now,” Box said. Although health officials are giving “strong guidance” to schools and businesses, she said Indiana “is very much a state” that feels such control “should be in the hands of the elected officials.”
“We have given Hoosiers the tools that they need, the information, the education, the ability to get vaccinated. We have provided that over and over and over again,” Box said. “We do believe that it comes down to some personal responsibility for Hoosiers across the state to make those decisions for themselves and in their own communities.”
Indianapolis' school district said Thursday that it will require all students and staff to wear masks while indoors. Purdue University issued the same rules on Friday, joining most other Indiana colleges on mask guidance but leaving vaccination optional.
Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb said again this week that he won’t implement any new statewide restrictions, despite the COVID-19 resurgence.
He cited the surge in infections as he issued an extension Thursday of the statewide public health emergency until Aug. 30. That extension didn't reimpose any statewide face mask requirements or crowd-size limits that expired in April.
The decision came as the number of Indiana counties approaching high risk for community spread of COVID-19 nearly quadrupled in one week. The state’s new coronavirus hospitalizations for COVID-19 also rebounded this month to levels last seen in May.
Indiana additionally topped 14,000 presumed or confirmed coronavirus-related deaths on Friday, though Box said the rate of such deaths remains at the lowest levels since the start of the pandemic. Weaver cautioned that could change, however, noting that 96% of the state’s recoded coronavirus-related deaths have occurred in unvaccinated individuals.
“Until we increase our vaccination rates, and unless we use every tool available to us to stop the spread of disease, this virus will continue to have the advantage," Box said. “It will continue to mutate, and we will be constantly playing whack a mole for the foreseeable future.”