Box: State entering the ‘darkest time’ of the pandemic

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Indiana State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box said the state is entering the darkest time of the COVID-19 pandemic because of a surge in cases and hospitalizations despite nearly universal access to vaccines. She said some residents’ unwillingness to wear masks, including at schools, is in part to blame for the ongoing surge.

State health officials, during an Aug. 27 press conference, said they expect cases and hospitalizations to increase for at least the next four to six weeks if more Hoosiers do not take measures to slow the spread of the Delta variant. Cases in the state are nearing record highs set during the winter with seven-day case averages being the highest they have been since January. And while more Hoosiers have been vaccinated in recent weeks, the Indiana State Dept. of Health reports just 52.5 percent of eligible residents have been fully vaccinated.

“I’ve heard other medical professionals from (across) the country state that this is the darkest time in the pandemic, and, unfortunately, I share those sentiments,” Box said during the press conference.

Box explained the surge isn’t just impacting Hoosiers being diagnosed with COVID. Many hospitals have begun postponing or rescheduling non-emergency procedures to ensure they have the capacity for injured and severely sick Hoosiers, including those hospitalized with COVID-19.

ISDH Chief Medical Officer Dr. Lindsay Weaver said during the press conference that the state is “fully expecting and preparing that things are going to get worse with our hospitalizations here in the next four weeks.”

As of Aug. 27, 2,108 Indiana residents were hospitalized because of COVID-19. The state recorded its record number of COVID-19 hospitalizations Nov. 30, 2020, when 3,460 residents were hospitalized. State health officials predict, based on data collected from prior surges, that hospitalizations will continue to increase for weeks, even if cases begin to decrease.

“I have incredible empathy for Hoosiers all over the state who are having their health procedures delayed because of capacity issues,” Box said. “I want Hoosiers to know the decisions they are making affect others. 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.”

Increasing the spread of the Delta variant is the lack of mask requirements in schools, Box said, although she stopped short of saying the state should intervene with a mask mandate. Box recommended Hoosiers wear masks when indoors or in congregate settings. She predicted increased vaccinations and mask wearing would be needed to prevent another surge of cases in the winter.

“It has been very clear that our elected officials want the opportunity to make these decisions for the State of Indiana, so we are giving appropriate, accurate, evidence-based recommendations very strongly about how we get out of this surge,” Box said.

However, state health officials said students who are not wearing masks while attending in-person classes and participating in extracurricular activities are contributing to the surge, a decision that has been left to school boards and parents in the absence of a state-wide mask mandate.

“We could definitely decrease the number of cases and transmission if those students would be masked all day in school — all students, teacher and staff,” Box said, adding that she believes data from the 2020-21 school year shows students need to attend in-person classes to fully benefit from their education. “I do not understand how wearing a mask is so difficult for people to try to prevent spreading this virus. It’s hard for me to understand when I think very clearly the data and evidence-based information shows that masks decrease transmission of this virus.”