INDIANAPOLIS – State health officials expressed concerns about coronavirus variants and discussed the effectiveness of vaccines in their first COVID-19 briefing in several weeks.
State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box and Chief Medical Officer Lindsay Weaver said the alpha variant remained dominant in Indiana, while cases involving the delta variant have seen a significant increase in recent weeks.
The state’s positivity rate is on the rise at 3.2%–up from 2.1% in late June. COVID-19 hospitalizations have also seen a slight increase lately. At the same time—with Box and Weaver crediting the efficacy of vaccines—new deaths are at their lowest level since early in the pandemic.
“We will see a surge in the delta variant,” Box said during Friday’s briefing, renewing calls for Hoosiers to get vaccinated.
The delta variant is more infectious than other variants. Box and Weaver are concerned about outbreaks in areas with low vaccination rates.
Box said she didn’t anticipate the return of statewide COVID-19 restrictions if Indiana saw a surge because of the delta variant. Cities and counties, on the other hand, may need to implement local restrictions depending on conditions.
As a whole, 2.9 million Hoosiers are fully vaccinated, representing about 49% of the eligible population. But vaccination hesitancy remains high in rural areas, Box and Weaver noted. They said they’ve been working to improve outreach in those areas with mobile clinics.
“We’re disappointed,” Box said. “We’d rather be higher.”
In addition, they believe a couple of things could change the minds of those who are reluctant to get the shot: full FDA approval of the vaccine (which is currently under an emergency use authorization) or a recommendation from an individual’s personal doctor to get the vaccine.
“Right now I think that one of the barriers for people is that it’s still under an emergency use authorization,” Box said. “And we hear regularly on our meetings with the CDC and the White House that really the FDA needs to move. And if they have data, which this is by far the most studied vaccine in the history of the world basically also for all the adverse effects it’s been studied the most. So if we can get the FDA to move to officially approve this and license this then I think that will help us with some people.”
Vaccination rates have a correlation with age, Box said, with less than half of Hoosiers 40 to 49 getting the shot. The vaccination rate drops as the age group gets younger.
“Herd immunity is a very nebulous thing, and a big part of that is how many people have been infected. As you know, we had a lot of asymptomatic infections, so it’s a very difficult thing to pin down,” Box said.
Box said there had been COVID-19 outbreaks at four long-term care facilities located in Howard, Fulton, Gibson, and Allen counties. The outbreak has included seven deaths among residents and 27 cases since mid-June, with the majority of those being people who were unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated.
In the Howard County case, the alpha variant was confirmed as the culprit. Testing is underway on the other facilities.
The state has seen 2,720 “breakthrough” cases in which an individual who got the vaccine tested positive for the coronavirus. Those cases led to 132 hospitalizations and 46 deaths, according to state data. Many of the breakthrough deaths involved older Hoosiers, with state data putting the average age at 78.8 years old.
To encourage more Hoosiers to get vaccinated, state health officials are they’re bringing the vaccine to summer events like fairs, primary care providers, and schools who want to offer it with parents’ consent, Dr. Weaver said.
“We really hope that schools will take us up on our offer to help,” Weaver said. “Many of our school-age children are now eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. In addition, these clinics can provide an opportunity to catch up on routine childhood immunizations.”
While state officials didn’t update their guidelines for schools, they said they would follow new guidelines from the CDC. The agency released its guidance at the same time Box and Weaver held their briefing.
The CDC said vaccinated students and teachers don’t need to wear masks in school buildings. The agency is also not recommending that schools mandate shots for teachers and students. For Indiana’s part, Box said she would not mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for students on a statewide basis.
As for masks, Box and Weaver said the state is seeing an increase in respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) now that fewer Hoosiers are masking up. Cases are at a higher-than-expected level than this time of year, something they attributed to the lifting of the state’s mask mandate.
Box also said fully vaccinated Hoosiers who don’t wear masks have a very low risk of infecting others. She would recommend masks for vaccinated individuals if they lived with someone who was immunocompromised.
“I think if you’re fully vaccinated, you’re fully protected if you’re an otherwise healthy person,” Box said. “I think that if you are immunocompromised or otherwise may be living with someone who’s immunocompromised and could asymptomatically take back an infection, you might want to consider masking under those circumstances.”