INDIANAPOLIS – Exhaustion and frustration apparent in their demeanor, state health officials warned the delta surge would only get worse in Indiana in the foreseeable future.
State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Lindsay Weaver delivered their first COVID-19 briefing since late July with Indiana mired in a growing coronavirus surge that threatens to overwhelm hospitals around the state.
Box said most hospitalizations in Indiana involve older Hoosiers, although Indiana is seeing a growing number of hospitalizations among children. The delta variant is responsible for nearly 98% of new cases that the state has sequenced.
“I want Hoosiers to understand that the decisions they’re making affect others,” Box said. “It’s incredibly disappointing to have effective tools such as the COVID-19 vaccine and still have nearly half of our eligible population refuse to get it.”
Some hospitals have postponed or canceled non-urgent procedures because capacity is being devoted to COVID-19 cases. Box said that means procedures like an elective heart surgery or biopsy are being put on the backburner.
“None of this is good news for Hoosiers,” Box said. “I’ve heard other medical professionals around the country state that this is the darkest time in the pandemic. Unfortunately, I share those sentiments.”
Box said the state would continue to throw “everything we have” at the surge.
The state has expanded testing and administered 200,000 coronavirus tests this week. In some communities, the positivity rate ended up near 20%.
Schools and COVID-19 testing
Box said the state needed more testing to fully understand the scope of the delta surge. She noted that the state sent out a survey to more than 2,000 schools this week; 318 schools responded.
Of the schools that responded, 35% were offering testing and 53% expressed interest in receiving BinaxNOW cards for rapid testing. Box said the state will give schools another chance to weigh in.
About 1,200 schools have not reported positive cases to the state even though they’re required to do so, Box said.
More than 300 Indiana National Guard members have volunteered to help with the pandemic, including medics and logistical support for testing and vaccination efforts.
Wearing masks and getting vaccinated are the key to getting out of the surge, according to Box and Weaver.
Weaver said some testing sites saw a 10% increase in scheduled appointments after the FDA gave full approval to Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine.
A third dose of the two-shot vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) is recommended for immunocompromised Hoosiers about 28 days after they received their second dose.
Those individuals include Hoosiers who are undergoing cancer treatments, recipients of organ or stem cell transplants, those with advanced or untreated HIV infections, and those who take certain medications that could suppress their immune system.
Weaver said guidance regarding an additional dose of the Johnson & Johnson is still under review.
The state will follow federal guidelines when it comes to booster shots. Weaver said the state would likely recommend a booster shot six to eight months after someone is fully vaccinated.
FDA and CDC approval for booster shots is likely in the fall. Weaver said the additional shot would give a boost to a person’s immune response.
Data regarding a booster shot for the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine remained under review.
“The reality is that 48% of our eligible population remains unvaccinated,” Weaver said. “That statistic allows the virus to continue thrive and puts those who cannot yet be vaccinated at greatest risk.”
Weaver doesn’t expect approval for use of the vaccine for kids 12 and under for several more months.
The state is seeing an increase in breakthrough cases, but Weaver noted they account for less than 0.5% of fully vaccinated individuals.
As of this week, Indiana is reporting 12,745 breakthrough cases among its more than 3 million vaccinated individuals.
Hospitalizations represent 0.008% of fully vaccinated individuals in the ICU represent 0.001% of fully vaccinated Hoosiers.
Cases have surged dramatically among unvaccinated Hoosiers in the last few weeks; Weaver said those who didn’t get vaccinated put themselves “at an extreme disadvantage” when it comes to getting COVID-19 and ending up in the hospital.
From Aug. 15 through Aug. 21, of 1,288 people hospitalized in Indiana, only seven were vaccinated. In terms of ICU admissions, only one individual out of 205 who were admitted to the ICU between Aug. 15 and Aug. 21 had been vaccinated.
Since January, the state has seen 93 deaths in fully vaccinated Hoosiers compared to 2,996 of unvaccinated Hoosiers. Just last week, 115 unvaccinated Hoosiers died, Weaver said.
Importance of wearing masks
Box strongly advocated masks in schools, saying the wearing of masks was the best tool schools had to keep students safe and limit the spread. That’s especially true among school-age children since those under the age of 12 can’t get the vaccine.
Box said the state wouldn’t put a new mask mandate in place because elected officials have made it clear that they want a say in how to handle the pandemic on a local level.
“There’s always a conversation with the governor ongoing about everything regarding this pandemic, and that hasn’t changed since day one,” Box said. “I will say that whether we have a mask mandate or not, masking is the mitigation measure that will help to decrease the transmission of this delta variant until we get out of this surge.”
Box and Weaver expressed dismay at the increased sales of ivermectin, a medication typically used for horse deworming. Some Americans are buying the medication to prevent or treat COVID-19.
“Studies have been done. Those studies have occurred and looked at ivermectin to see if it is beneficial to see if it would help with COVID, and it has not proven to be beneficial,” Weaver said. “Do not go and take a medicine that is not prescribed for you when there is no evidence that it could help you, because it could harm you.”
Box noted that some people have called poison control after taking the drug and experiencing side effects.
“Don’t take a medicine that is prescribed for animals, especially large animals, that has not been proven to affect a virus or a disease,” Box said.
Darker days ahead?
“The next two to four weeks, maybe even as long as six weeks, things are going to get worse if Hoosiers do not start wearing masks to prevent transmission and more Hoosiers do not get vaccinated,” Box said.
Box expected cases to continue to increase through Labor Day, with an increase in hospitalizations following suit. Weaver said hospitals were digging in for the worst.
“I think we are fully expecting and preparing that things are going to get much worse with our hospitalizations over the next four weeks,” Weaver said.