Indiana watching counties near Michigan for COVID-19 risk

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated.

The counties near Indiana’s border with Michigan are showing persistent risk of coronavirus spread, with top state health officials saying Wednesday they were trying to turn around declining COVID-19 vaccination rates.

The ongoing risk comes as Indiana’s COVID-19 hospitalizations are at their highest since mid-February with Michigan remaining the national hotspot for infections and hospitalizations. Indiana’s rate of people receiving vaccine shots has dropped by about one-third over the past couple weeks.

The State Department of Health’s weekly tracking map updated Wednesday showed four of the five Indiana counties that border Michigan with orange risk — the second highest of the four ratings. Two other nearby counties also have orange ratings, while 10 more northern Indiana counties have the next-highest yellow rating.

Indiana officials have been watching those northern counties because Michigan has posted more new COVID-19 cases than any other state in the country over the past two weeks. Those infections could continue to spread among unvaccinated people with so much travel between the two states, health officials said.

“Just because you’re in a part of Indiana that doesn’t border Michigan, I wouldn’t think that you’re in the clear,” said Dr. Lindsay Weaver, the state health department’s chief medical officer.

One-third of Indiana residents ages 16 and older and eligible for the vaccine shots have now been fully immunized for COVID-19, according to state health officials. But the average number of people receiving shots has declined from almost 56,000 a day in mid-April to 38,000, and health officials acknowledged they now had more vaccine supply available than demand for shots.

While vaccine demand has grown weak in much of the country, Indiana’s percentage of total population that’s been fully vaccinated is 44th among the 50 states, according to federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box said she was worried about increase risk from more contagious coronavirus variants at a time when so many people aren’t immunized.

“COVID is still here and it is not going away anytime soon,” Box said. “Please stay vigilant, please don’t let your guard down.”

Weaver said the health department is increasing outreach and promotion of vaccine availability especially in rural areas and to minority groups. That includes cellphone alerts sent in the past week about mass vaccination clinics in Gary and Indianapolis that she said increased the number of people showing up at them for shots.

State officials sent out a phone alert similar to an Amber alert on Tuesday to remind people to get vaccinated, and to let them know that slots were available without appointment this week at a drive-in, mass vaccination at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

State officials did not speculate as to why Indiana ranks so low among states, despite numerous mass vaccination clinics and more than 400 sites across the state offering vaccines, even when asked directly during the press conference.

Box said a big challenge is the low percentage of people in rural counties that are getting vaccinated. She said the state is working with the Indiana Rural Health Association, the Purdue Extension and the Indiana Farm Bureau to try to increase the rate.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to get vaccine out, to look at different avenues, to continue the conversation, to continue the education,” Weaver said. “The bottom line is we have a lot of work to do.”

The health department has added 64 coronavirus-related deaths over the past week to the state’s toll, raising the pandemic total to 13,312. Indiana’s seven-day moving average of deaths has remained below 10 for more than a month compared to the peak of 103 a day in mid-December.

Indiana hospitals have had more than 900 COVID-19 patients a day this week after dropping below 600 a day in March. Hospitalizations  peaked at more than 3,000 a day in November and December, followed by a high of 73 of Indiana’s 92 counties rating the highest risk level of red for coronavirus spread in January.

But health officials said they were concerned that the growing number of variants in Indiana could take their toll with more hospitalizations and deaths.

Weaver asked people to encourage their friends and neighbors to get vaccinated.

“It’s all of our individual responsibilities to talk to others, encourage others,” she said. “I know people at small dinner parties that have convinced other people to go ahead and get vaccinated.”

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