Indiana health officials warn of outbreaks of COVID-19 variants, urge people to get vaccinated

Indiana continues to lag the nation in the percentage of people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and is now seeing an outbreak of variants that are more infectious and can cause more severe illness.

State health officials on Friday raised the alarm that people who have not received vaccines should do so as soon as possible to avoid further outbreaks.

At the same time, health officials said they do not expect to institute additional restrictions in coming months. The state plans to go along with recommendations released Friday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that vaccinated teachers and students won’t need to wear masks inside school buildings.

However, communities and school districts, in consultation with local health officials, may institute restrictions based on levels of infections by geography, said Dr. Kristina Box, state health commissioner.

Box said variant outbreaks are highly concerning because the mutations “are shown to be more infectious, more easily transmitted and could potentially cause more severe illness than the original strain.” Of particular concern is the delta variant, which is surging through populations with low vaccination rates in the United States.

The state has identified outbreaks involving residents and staff members at four long-term-care facilities in Howard, Fulton, Allen and Gibson counties, she said.

At least 27 cases of COVID-19 variants have been identified at those four facilities since mid-June, involving the deaths of seven residents. Most of those cases involved people who were unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated, she said.

Indiana ranks 33rd among all states for percentage of the population fully vaccinated, according to the CDC’s Data Tracker. As of 6 a.m. Monday, 42.8% of Hoosiers age 12 and older, or nearly 2.9 million people, had been fully vaccinated.

Asked about the relatively low ranking, Box said she was disappointed.

“We would rather be higher with our percentage of fully vaccinated individuals,” she said. “We knew there would come a time when we would go from people very, very anxious to get the vaccine, and our not having enough, to a time when we are really working very hard to get that next individual to be vaccinated.”

The major barrier for many people, she said, is that the vaccine is still under an emergency use authorization and has yet to be fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Box said the FDA needs to move to full authorization.

“This is, by far, the most studied vaccine in the history of the world, basically,” she said. “And for all the adverse effects, it’s been studied the most. So if we can get the FDA to move to officially approve this, I think that will help us with some people.”

Fewer than half of Hoosiers between the ages of 40 and 49 have been vaccinated. In younger age groups, the percentage is even lower. Only about one-third of Hoosiers been ages 16 and 29 have been vaccinated, and less than 20% of Hoosiers in the 12-to-15-year age group have been vaccinated.

Dr. Lindsay Weaver, chief medical officer for the state health department, said the state is reaching out to counties to identify big festivals and other popular events where it can send in mobile clinics. In coming weeks, it plans to send its mobile clinic to fairs and festivals in Perry, Tippecanoe, Noble, Franklin, Tipton and Kosciusko counties.

The department will be at the Indiana Black and Minority Health Fair next week and is partnering with Indiana University Health to offer vaccinations at the Indiana State Fair and Brickyard 400.

The state health department reported Friday that 400 additional Hoosiers have been diagnosed with COVID-19 through testing at state and private laboratories, bringing to 757,062 the number of Indiana residents now known to have had the novel coronavirus following corrections to the previous day’s dashboard.

To date, 13,487 Hoosiers are confirmed to have died from COVID-19, an increase of five from the previous day. Another 427 probable deaths have been reported to date based on clinical diagnoses in patients for whom no positive test is on record.

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