While You Were Sleeping: Coronavirus updates for September 24

Coronavirus

INDIANAPOLIS — There were several developments in the coronavirus pandemic that you may have missed overnight.

Here’s a look:

Stage 5 starts Saturday. Citing the state’s improvement in positivity rates in coronavirus testing and the slowing of the spread, Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb announced Indiana will move to Stage 5 of its Back On Track reopening plan.

This means the removal of size limitations on social gatherings, though events holding over 500 people still need approval from their local health department.

Restaurants and bars may be open at full capacity with physical distancing measures remaining in place. Capacity levels at gyms and fitness centers have also been lifted and facilities can open with continued distancing and sanitation precautions.

Holcomb said senior centers and meal sites can also be opened, again with precautions remaining in place.

Stage 5 has been adjusted slightly, he said, as not every establishment will not be able to operate at their original capacity because of the social distancing rules, as was originally planned when the stages of the plan were announced.

Mask mandate remains in place. The state’s mask mandate will remain in place during Stage 5.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box re-emphasized the importance of wearing masks and keeping social distancing practices in place, and shared positive news of infection rates dropping in the majority of the state, largely due to these practices.

Box also said flu season is coming and asked everyone to get flu shots to keep Hoosiers healthy, while warning that the flu has similar symptoms to COVID-19.

The statewide mask mandate went into effect on July 27 and will be extended through at least Oct. 17.

Statehouse changes. A committee is looking into how Indiana lawmakers will safely convene in 2021.

So far, the committee is planning to move the Indiana House of Representatives outside the Statehouse and into the Government South conference center.

“Right now, nothing is set in stone,” said Republican House Speaker Todd Huston. “The current House chamber wasn’t built with social distancing in mind.”

Neither were House committee rooms, but the Indiana Senate is expected to stay in the Statehouse.

“For some reason I’ll never understand, the smaller body has the larger committee rooms,” explained Democratic State Rep. Ed Delaney of Indianapolis.

He serves on the Legislative Continuity Committee assigned to come up with COVID-19 safety suggestions for the session. Delaney believes lawmakers should be coming up with a plan now about how the public, lobbyists, staff and press will be part of the process. He wants them to be in the room.

“We’ve given very little thought to any of that,” said Delaney.

The fear—for some— is anyone who isn’t a lawmaker will only be allowed to attend virtually from another room like they have been for Summer Study Sessions. Kerwin Olson, the Executive Director of the Citizens Action Coalition said he has already seen that system fail at times.

“You couldn’t hear them on the microphone, they had no video, there were delays,” said Olson.

He doesn’t understand why people can go to restaurants and sporting events, but they can’t testify on important legislation in person.

Flu vs. COVID-19. It’s impossible to tell the difference between influenza and COVID-19 without a test because both have such similar symptoms.

Body aches, sore throat, fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue and headaches are symptoms shared by the two.

One difference? People with the flu typically feel sickest during the first week of illness. With COVID-19, people may feel the worst during the second or third week, and they may be sicker for a longer period.

Another difference: COVID-19 is more likely than the flu to cause a loss of taste or smell. But not everyone experiences that symptom, so it’s not a reliable way to tell the viruses apart.

That leaves testing, which will become more important as flu season ramps up this fall in the Northern Hemisphere. Doctors will need to know test results to determine the best treatment.

It’s also possible to be infected with both viruses at the same time, said Dr. Daniel Solomon, an infectious diseases expert at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston.

Whether you get tested for one or both viruses may depend on how available tests are and which viruses are circulating where you live, he said.

“Right now we are not seeing community transmission of influenza, so widespread testing for the flu is not yet recommended,” Solomon said.

Both the flu and coronavirus spread through droplets from the nose and mouth. Both can spread before people know they are sick. The flu has a shorter incubation period — meaning after infection it can take one to four days to feel sick — compared to the coronavirus, which can take two to 14 days from infection to symptoms.

On average, COVID-19 is more contagious than flu. But many people with COVID-19 don’t spread the virus to anyone, while a few people spread it to many others. These “superspreader events” are more common with COVID-19 than flu, Solomon said.

Vaccine progress. A huge international study of a COVID-19 vaccine that aims to work with just one dose is getting underway as top U.S. health officials sought to assure a skeptical Congress and public that they can trust any shots the government ultimately approves.

Hopes are high that answers about at least one of several candidates being tested in the U.S. could come by year’s end, maybe sooner.

“We feel cautiously optimistic that we will be able to have a safe and effective vaccine, although there is never a guarantee of that,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, infectious disease chief at the National Institutes of Health, told a Senate committee.

President Donald Trump is pushing for a faster timeline, which many experts say is risky and may not allow for adequate testing. On Wednesday he tweeted a link to news about the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine study and said the Food and Drug Administration “must move quickly!”

“President Trump is still trying to sabotage the work of our scientists and public health experts for his own political ends,” Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington state, said before ticking off examples of pressure on the FDA.

FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn pledged that career scientists, not politicians, will decide whether any coronavirus vaccine meets clearly stated standards that it works and is safe. Vaccine development usually takes years but scientists have been racing to shorten that time, in part by manufacturing doses that will have to be thrown away if studies find they don’t work.

“Science will guide our decisions. FDA will not permit any pressure from anyone to change that,” Hahn said. “I will put the interest of the American people above anything else.”

FDA has faced criticism for allowing emergency use of some COVID-19 treatments backed by little evidence, but Hahn said if vaccine makers want that faster path to market, additional standards will be coming soon.

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