INDIANAPOLIS — Now that the NCAA Division Men’s Basketball Tournament has left town, Mayor Joe Hogsett has called Indianapolis’ staging of the Big Dance a big success, even if COVID-19 issues jeopardized a fairy tale ending.
The Tournament concluded Monday night with a new national champion crowned and efforts by the Marion County Public Health Department to monitor COVID-19 infections that claimed two lives, one of a basketball fan and the other of an employee of a famed downtown Indianapolis restaurant where service was disrupted for 48 hours.
The specter of a COVID-19 outbreak hung over the planning and execution of the March Madness tournament in its entirety in central Indiana with most games played in Marion County.
Mayor Hogsett admitted such during a morning briefing with reporters.
“An expectation that recent events have confirmed,” said Hogsett. “Our public health experts have been able to react and respond to potential spread so quickly and thoroughly.”
The NCAA crowds departed Indianapolis after the final buzzer of the Baylor-Gonzaga game at Lucas Oil Stadium Monday night, but left behind an estimated nine-figure payday for the city and its hospitality industry.
“We have proved to the world that we can responsibly host major events,” said Hogsett even as the Indiana Convention Center prepares to host two events and welcome 8,000 visitors to the city this weekend. “The NCAA March Madness Tournament is a starting point for Indianapolis really coming back, conventions returning, the hospitality industry back in swing, and I look forward to the months ahead.”
Those months ahead and the city’s economic recovery from the pandemic could be complicated by the potential spring surge of COVID-19 infections, according to Marion County Public Health Director Dr. Virginia Caine.
“We’re seeing a slow increase now in our positivity rates for COVID-19,” said Dr. Caine, “but we have slowly been increasing our positivity where we are now at 4.1% positivity at the end of March.”
Dr. Caine said that she suspects Marion County residents returning from spring break and more virulent strains of the virus may be to blame for the increase in new cases and emergency department visits.
Yet, she said, it is too early to determine if the presence of the NCAA Tournament and the thousands of fans and staff it brought to town, as well as residents emerging from their homes during the second spring of the pandemic, is to blame for a rise in Marion County’s infection rate.
“I expect now based on these numbers to see a surge but because of the slowness of it, and the lower rate of rise in the cases we’re expecting, that we’ll probably have a milder surge compared to what we saw in Thanksgiving and what we saw at the Christmas holiday.”
MCPHD continues its tracking of the infection that killed a University of Alabama basketball fan after he returned home following a visit to Indianapolis to watch the Crimson Tide play in the tournament and an outbreak that forced the temporary closure of St. Elmo Steak House.
Luke Ratliff, known in the student section of Alabama games as “Fluffopotamus”, posted several twitter messages in late March about his travels around Indianapolis, visits to several restaurants and attendance at a trio of Crimson Tide games.
He also stayed at an Airbnb on March 20 and died in Alabama last Friday.
Dr. Caine said her investigators have reached out to Alabama authorities to undertake contact tracing of anybody in Ratliff’s circle who may have been exposed to the virus.
“On Saturday, when we were made aware of the report, we reached out to the Indiana State Department of Health in order to reach out on our behalf to the Alabama Department of Public Health to identify if anyone in Indianapolis had potentially been exposed to COVID-19 by any Alabama resident,” she said. “A handful of individuals (in Alabama) who attended our NCAA games have been contacted regarding their potential exposure to COVID-19. We will be continuing to cooperate with the state of Alabama’s COVID contact tracing investigation.”
Dr. Caine detailed the extensive contact tracing process that is available to her investigators to track any outbreak connected to the tournament.
“Anybody, for example, who might have attended the NCAA event, we keep information related to where is an individual being seated?” she said. “We have their email information; we have their phone information, so we have the ability that I can look and say within a six feet diameter or even going as far as twelve feet diameter that I can generate a list of those individuals surrounding anybody that may have been infected as a spectator in some of our events.
“Instead of me having to send a letter to anyone who may have participated in a large NCAA event, I can tell based on the information that we’ve gathered and all the extensive amount of pre-work that we have done that we can do very effective contact tracing.”
MCPHD has also monitored the outbreak at St. Elmo that left at least nine employees testing positive for COVID-19 and the restaurant reporting one work-related death to the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Craig Huse, CEO of Huse Culinary, owner of St. Elmo, announced at 11 p.m. Saturday that his restaurant would be closed for two nights leading up to Monday’s championship game, causing the presumed cancellation of dozens of reservations.
The restaurant reopened on a limited basis at 6:30 p.m. Monday.
“We’re continuing to provide guidance and oversight to ensure the safety of all the staff and patrons including providing free PCR testing for all staff and we’re monitoring the restaurant operations very closely,” said Dr. Caine who doubts that restaurant patrons would have been infected by the staff. “We follow what is called the CDC guidelines that define close contact as someone who is within six feet of an individual, they’re masked, but if they’re masked and are within six feet of an individual infected with COVID-19 for fifteen minutes or more, then we’re concerned about transmission to the customers or patrons. Based on our investigation to this point, we do not believe that there was any exposure risk to the patrons under this guideline.”
Despite the relaxation of mask mandates all across Indiana today, Mayor Hogsett said Marion County will maintain its public health emergency rules for the time being.
“We must remain vigilant. We must wear masks. We must remain socially distant. We must wash our hands often,” he said. “Indianapolis and Marion County are just fundamentally different from the rest of the state. We have more people and therefore we have a higher risk of spread.”
Dr. Caine said 16.4% of Marion County residents have been fully vaccinated, far below the 80% vaccination rate she says the county needs to attain to reach herd immunity from COVID-19.
“You need to get your shot,” advised Hogsett. “Vaccination is ultimately what will put COVID-19 behind us.”