INDIANAPOLIS — “People should feel like the trend is moving in the wrong direction.”
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb didn’t mince words Oct. 14.
The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over and state officials are pleading with Hoosiers to stop acting like it is.
Indiana’s mask mandate is staying in place. Stage 5 is staying in place. But COVID-19 is encroaching more widely across the state.
And, the week of Oct. 12 it hit the Statehouse — Indiana State Health Commissioner Dr. Kris Box is COVID-19 positive and that diagnosis is triggering Holcomb, his staff and other state health department staff to get tested on Wednesday’s afternoon.
Holcomb, Box and Indiana State Health Department Chief Medical Officer Dr. Lindsay Weaver spent more than 30 minutes of Oct. 14's state news conference laying out the current conditions.
Oct. 14's conference came amid Indiana seeing record-high cases, rising positivity rates, hospitalizations rising to levels not seen since May and deaths increasing compared to recent months.
That change has primarily occurred since the start of October, shortly after Indiana went into the final stage of its reopening plan Sept. 26.
Holcomb’s tone, while often upbeat and at times playful when sharing success stories around the state, was noticeably more forceful and blunt on Oct. 14 as he discussed the situation.
“Stage 5 is not the stage where the checkered flag comes out, Stage 5 is not an excuse for indifference and irresponsibility,” Holcomb said in his opening remarks. “We just all know, we see with our own eyes, that’s not the case for everyone, and I know we’re not alone. This is happening all over the world, people are tired of this. People have mask fatigue. People are wanting, yearning as a matter of fact, to get back to the old days, the good old days.
“We want to make sure that as we are going through each and every day, we are underscoring the fact that it is our actions or inactions,” Holcomb said. “We’re all paying this bill. The bill is coming due, and throwing caution to the wind ultimately ends up costing us all. It is literally whistling past the graveyard.
“The numbers have everything to do with how many of us are and aren’t letting our guard down,” Holcomb said.
Holcomb turned the conversation over briefly to Box, who called in via phone to Oct. 14's conference and started by informing the state that she, her daughter and her toddler grandson have all tested positive for COVID-19.
Box noted, however, that outside of her close family that visits once per week, her family has consistently practiced mask use, kept social distance and maintained other precautions, therefore resulting in very few possible close contact exposures.
Box reported that her family members have had mild symptoms and that she is currently feeling well and will be working from home for the time being.
“I’m not symptomatic in any way shape or form,” Box said. “We’re really going to have limited to no individuals who are close contacts besides my immediate family who will need to quarantine or isolate depending on whether they become ill.”
Holcomb came back on to indicate that he’s not rolling back Indiana’s reopening plan, announcing he’d continue Stage 5 for another month and then later also added that the state’s mask mandate will be remaining in effect and encouraging Hoosiers all over to abide it in order to help reduce further transmission.
“Efforts will focus on counties that are showing on red or orange on the state’s positivity map and may include additional support,” Holcomb said. “Since last winter we have learned more … and what we must do to keep ourselves safe, this is not the time to abandon what we’re doing.
“We all want to get to the finish line. We all want to return to how things were pre-COVID. We all want to see that checkered flag I mentioned a while ago and we will. But this race won’t be completed until the data tells us so,” Holcomb said.
The governor turned the mic over to Weaver, who, standing in for Box, detailed the latest numbers and the wrong direction they’re trending.
But first, Weaver announced that due to Box’s infection, that Holcomb, herself, and other staff members at the governor’s office and state health department would be tested for COVID-19 that afternoon.
When asked in a followup later, Weaver said all affected people will be taking two tests, a rapid-result test that, if negative, will be followed up with a more accurate lab test. The tests will be processed priority at the Indiana State Department of Health Lab, with results expected to be returned the next morning, or afternoon at the latest.
That turnaround is much quicker than most Hoosiers would expect to receive, with test results from labs that can take 72 hours or more to return.
Holcomb said he would be isolating at home until his results come back.
Weaver then echoed the sentiments of the governor, reminding Hoosiers the pandemic is not over and that, right now, activity is trending the wrong way.
“Stage 5 does not mean life is back to pre-pandemic normalcy, this is our new normal,” Weaver said. “We can’t afford to get complacent, we have a number of counties where COVID activity has increased.”
Weaver pointed to this week’s county ratings, noting that the number of counties seeing low spread has sharply decreased, while several more have moved up into yellow and orange ratings representing moderate and high spread.
LaGrange and Steuben counties were two of 21 counties that entered the orange stage this week indicating higher spread, while Noble and DeKalb remained in the yellow, although DeKalb County was there by just a single percentage point on its positivity rate. Allen, Whitley, Wells, Huntington, Wabash and Adams counties also were in the yellow stage.
Aside from cases and positivity returns rising, Weaver specifically pointed to increasing hospitalization numbers that have hit their highest point since May 13.
Overall, the state retains about 30% of its intensive care unit capacity and more than 70% of available ventilators, but Weaver reported certain health districts in the state are already nearing their capacity and flu season, which generally leads to increased hospitalizations for seriously ill patients, hasn’t even come into play yet.
“While our hospital systems are better equipped … some are facing significant staffing challenges especially among nurses. We are seeing an increased need for the specialized care of people with COVID,” Weaver said. “Our hospital systems have done a fantastic job building their intensive care and ventilator capacity, but that should be our insurance plan.”
Weaver also raised alarm bells that a decreasing percentage of people contacted by contact tracings are participating in the initial survey call to gather information, which is hampering health officials’ ability to track the source of cases, identify other people who may need to be tested or quarantined and cut off spread of the virus before it chains to significantly more people.
What the state is seeing from the people who do complete contact tracing is that lately they are exposing more people than in previous months, suggesting that people are becoming more lax in maintaining proper distancing.
Weaver, like the governor and health commissioner before her, added her plea for Hoosiers to recommit themselves to practicing the proper interventions and help re-flatten the state’s COVID-19 curve.
“Hoosiers, we are all over dealing with this, but this pandemic is not over and it won’t be over unless we all do our part,” Weaver said. “We are asking you again to do what we know works … wear your mask, socially distance, avoid large crowds, stay home if you’re sick, and please get tested. These are the things that we now have that we really have to fight the disease.
“This is about all of us. We can do this if we work together,” Weaver said.