Health officer braces for commissioners to end mask mandate support

Elkhart County Health Officer Dr. Bethany Wait speaks to reporters about the rising cases of COVID-19 variants in the county during a press conference Tuesday afternoon at the Elkhart County Health Department

ELKHART — Elkhart County’s health officer fears enacting a new state law will send dominoes tumbling to where county leaders could override local health orders amid another apparent resurgence of COVID-19 locally.

Dr. Bethany Wait expressed concerns Tuesday about a new trend of rising cases of the coronavirus, fueled by variant strains, and the effect it’s having on local hospitals. At the same time, she’s watching developments in the Indiana Legislature in which new legislation could ultimately doom the local facemask order.

The Elkhart County commissioners apparently intend to do that should the bill become law.

“If this bill goes into effect, we will lose our mask mandate in Elkhart County along with our capacity limitations in Elkhart County, which to me is extremely frightening,” Wait said of Indiana Senate Bill 5 at a news conference.

The measure, which cleared the General Assembly on Friday, would require local health officers to get approval from local governments to implement restrictions that exceed a governor’s executive orders during states of emergency.

The bill has gone to Gov. Eric Holcomb for his decision on whether to sign it, veto it or take no action.

“It’s very concerning that this bill was passed,” Wait said. “And it’s very concerning to me that I have continually heard from the general community that our goals are to keep hospitals accessible, to keep schools open and to keep businesses open. Well, we’re at the point we’re at the brink of one of those three not being possible, but yet we’re not willing to keep a mask mandate or capacity limitations.”

Should the bill pass, Wait expects the commissioners to pull their support from her current health order, which includes a requirement for Elkhart County residents to wear face coverings in public places amid COVID-19 health advisories. The order is set to expire May 14.

The state’s facemask requirement ended April 6.

“Every single one of the county commissioners have told me that they will not support my public health order, which means the capacity limitations would go away, and the mask mandate would go away,” Wait said.

Commissioner Frank Lucchese backed up Wait’s assertion saying the board believes it’s time for the mask requirement to end.

“We have reached that tipping point of more available vaccines than people willing to take the vaccine,” Lucchese said in a message, pointing out a majority of the local population over 50 years old has received vaccines. “Now it’s a personal choice to get the vaccine or not. If you’re afraid of the virus and you aren’t vaccinated yet, wear a mask. The rest of the population needs to start getting back to normal.”

Commissioners Suzanne Weirick and Brad Rogers did not respond to requests for comment before this story’s deadline.

Wait shared her concerns about the Senate bill after pointing to data showing the county’s rate of positive COVID-19 cases has increased sharply to a level similar to those seen last October and November.

“This is concerning,” Wait said. “This has been a rapid increase this week.”

Local hospitals are becoming overwhelmed again as a result, with patient numbers increase. She also said the situation is due in large part to facilities finding themselves understaffed now compared to the last surge in COVID-19 cases.

“That’s just how much health care workers are tired,” Wait said. “And they’re leaving health care. While we could accept more COVID-positive patients, or in general hospitalized patients of any kind of need, our beds are filling up because of the staff.”

The culprit for the new local surge, according to Wait, are the mutated United Kingdom and California variant strains of the coronavirus.

“These are the variants that are high in our community,” she said.

Wait pointed out the spread of the variants was anticipated, and added the U.K. version is 70% more transmissible than the initial strain, while the California variant is 20% more transmissible.

She said the prevention measures to reduce the original strain’s spread, such as facemasks and handwashing, also work against the variants. Yet they’ve been allowed to spread as people seem to take less precautions, including, she said, fewer people quarantining when they’re sick.

“I think a lot of us have become lax about what we’re doing,” Wait said. “So, we aren’t social distancing as well. We aren’t wearing masks as well. I realize there’s a mask mandate in Elkhart County, but let’s be honest, I’ve been out to the store. There are people that are not wearing masks.”

She acknowledged masks don’t provide total protection on personal levels, but become effective on a community level to keep significant spreading of the virus down.

“As a public health measure, getting an entire group of people to wear a mask, helps to reduce the spread,” she said. “That is the whole point.”

Wait also encouraged residents to get their COVID-19 vaccinations. She said local vaccination numbers have plateaued, and she urged more people to get out and get their shots.

“This is the way that we protect ourselves from COVID-19,” Wait said. “Now’s the time. Please don’t hesitate or wait.”

In addition to pharmacies and hospitals, she noted the Health Department’s office in Elkhart has walk-in appointments for residents at least 18 years old to receive the Moderna vaccines. The clinic runs Mondays through Wednesdays, 9 a.m.–5:20 p.m. and on Thursdays, 8 a.m.–3:50 p.m.

Aimee Ambrose can be reached at aimee.ambrose@goshennews.com or 574-533-2151, ext. 240316. Follow her on Twitter at @aambrose_TGN.

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