INDIANAPOLIS — With Indiana now near 50% of its population 12 and over fully vaccinated against COVID-19, state health officials provided an update about the progress and continuing challenges in fighting the virus.
Indiana State Health Commissioner Dr. Kris Box and Indiana State Health Department Chief Medical Officer Dr. Lindsay Weaver discussed the status of COVID-19 in a press conference from Indianapolis Friday morning, the first public presser hosted in weeks.
The situation is good right now — cases, hospitalizations and deaths are low — but health officials are keeping an eye on a recent uptick in activity from record lows set in June, as well as watching rising variant cases in the state.
Box noted that Indiana is seeing more cases being identified as variant cases, with the majority all-time still being the “alpha” variant, first identified in the United Kingdom.
However, recently, the proportion of new variants being identified is increasing among the “delta” variant, which was first identified in India.
“The delta variant is now the one we are now seeing most frequently,” Box said.
Variant strains of COVID-19 have generally been identified as being more infectious and also tending to hit patients harder, especially younger patients. The delta variant has been of the most concern recently as other U.S. states have seen more significant upticks in cases and hospitalizations attributable to that variant.
As of Friday, Indiana sits just shy of 50% of eligible Hoosiers older than 12 being fully vaccinated.
Box said that she remains “disappointed” that Indiana hasn’t hit a higher mark yet — Indiana is within the bottom 25% of states in the U.S. for vaccination rate — but officials reminded that the vaccine continues to show it is highly effective.
Indiana has seen fewer than 0.1% of its fully vaccinated population become a “breakthrough” case, an infection occurring after vaccination, while almost all new COVID-19 cases and deaths are occurring among unvaccinated Hoosiers.
Indiana has seen 46 breakthrough deaths, with the median age of those deaths being 81 years old. Health officials have previously stated that older people are more likely to be breakthrough cases as their immune systems may not be strong enough to mount a full immune response to fight off the virus.
“We expect to continue to see outbreaks in areas with low vaccination rates,” Box said. “The vaccines are extremely effective at preventing illness that lead to hospitalizations and death.”
Vaccine rates are the highest among Indiana’s older population — rates are 75% and higher among those 65 and older — but younger Hoosiers continue to lag, with fewer than 40% of people younger than 40 vaccinated at this time.
Schools will be getting back in session as soon as later this month for the earliest-starting schools, and while students younger than 12 can’t get vaccinated yet, adolescent students and staff members can.
While vaccines won’t be mandated in schools by the state, Box said, and it’s up to schools to decide on whether masks or other restrictions are required, quarantines are not going away.
Schools saw limited spread of the the virus in the 2020-21 school year, but quarantines of students exposed to an infected student or staff member were the more disruptive impact to K-12 education.
That’s not changing. Schools are still going to be required to report and trace cases and people will still have to be quarantined, unless they’re fully vaccinated.
“COVID-19 will still require schools to quarantine,” Weaver said. “Fully vaccinated students will not need to quarantine unless they are symptomatic.”
That decision is likely to prove unpopular in the 2021-22 school year. But, in the end, Weaver said, COVID-19 is still a highly communicable, infectious disease.
“You would not let someone with measles or chickenpox come to school and continue to infect other students,” Weaver said. “COVID-19 is the same.”
At this point, new vaccinations have slowed to a crawl in Indiana as the initial demand for the shots has dried up.
Rural areas lag suburban and areas and health officials said the ongoing vaccine effort has become more of a one-on-one experience between health providers and Hoosiers who need vaccines.
“Many areas of our state continue to have low rates of uptake,” Weaver said. “We continue to take steps to increase interest and access.”
In that effort, the state health department is helping to enable clinics at large events that have started back up around the state, including taking vaccine efforts to county fairs going on.
Weaver said mobile vaccine sites will be available at numerous fairs next week, including the Noble County Community Fair in Kendallville.
Beyond that, the state has been able to provide vaccine to many doctor offices so that physicians and nurses can have conversations with their patients and answer questions people might have about the shot and distribute it.
Box said dialogue with a trusted health provider has proven to be one of the most effective ways to get people on the fence to ultimately decide to get vaccinated.
“They really want to hear from their primary care provider. We have done our best to give toolkits to local providers,” Box said. “We know this is a difficult decision for some people because of their fear of side effects and we encourage them to have those tough conversations.”
Everyday Hoosiers who have been vaccinated can also play a role by sharing their experiences with friends, family and coworkers if they know someone is on the fence. An open, respectful, non-judgmental conversation can go a long way, Box said.
Weaver said personal stories can make an impact, too. People who know someone who got very ill or died are far more likely to make the decision to get the shot than people who don’t know anyone who was impacted.
Weaver, who works in emergency medicine, said it’s been heartbreaking to see incoming patients at the hospital with serious COVID-19 cases then wishing on their hospital bed that they had gotten the vaccine.
“This is a healthcare decision each one of us have to make, but unfortunately some people only learn if someone very close to them becomes very ill or dies from it,” Weaver said.
“It’s a statistic until it’s someone you love and then it’s 100%,” good or bad, Box said as a testament to the power of personal stories and experiences.