Indiana's top health officials warned Friday that spread of an especially contagious coronavirus variant is "significantly increasing" across the state, with more than half of the population still unvaccinated.
Indiana's COVID-19 positivity rate, which had dropped to 2.1% in late June, has crept back up to 3.2%, state health commissioner Dr. Kristina Box said during a news conference Friday. While new deaths remain at the lowest levels since early in the pandemic, the state is recording an uptick in hospitalizations.
Four long-term care facilities in north-central Indiana have experienced recent outbreaks, Box continued. At least 27 cases have been identified at the facilities since mid-June, resulting in at least seven deaths among residents, she said. Most of the infected individuals were unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated.
Box said more outbreaks are expected, especially in areas with low vaccination rates.
Nearly 2.9 million Indiana residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, representing 49% of the eligible population, said Indiana Department of Health chief medical officer Dr. Lindsay Weaver.
Top health officials warned that Indiana continues to see "concerning" gaps in vaccine uptake, both by age and geography.
Less than half of residents ages 40 to 49 have been vaccinated, and inoculation percentages drop off significantly in younger age groups, Weaver said. About a third of those ages 16 to 29 have been vaccinated, while the number of fully vaccinated residents in the 12 to 15 year age group remains below 20%.
The low vaccination rates among the state’s youth means few students will be immunized before returning to school, which Weaver said could allow the virus to spread quickly among large numbers of people.
The state has also seen a 20% decline in routine immunizations during the pandemic among younger children — and an even higher decline among older children — putting youth at risk of becoming ill from other preventable diseases, Weaver added.
“We all want this next school year to look more normal than it has in the last 16 months, but we also want schools to remember that COVID-19 is a communicable disease,” she said. “These variants have been shown to be more infectious and may cause more severe illness, and the vaccine is still the most effective tool that we have to protect the people we love.”
Still, Box said state health officials are not planning to reinstate restrictions after the statewide mask order and COVID-19 business restrictions ended in early April. Decisions about how students should return to classes this fall are being left to local school boards and individual communities.
State health officials are now working to identify county fairs, summer festivals and other events where mobile vaccination clinics can be offered, Box said.
"We knew there would come a time when we would go from people (being) very, very anxious to get the vaccine and not having enough, to a time when we were really working very hard to get that next individual to be vaccinated," Box said. "We're trying to be patient."