GOSHEN — While keeping COVID-19 restrictions in place until at least 70% of the adult population has been vaccinated is the general goal of the local medical community, Elkhart County Health Officer Bethany Wait noted Friday that it’s possible the county’s restrictions could be lifted prior to that, but only if certain criteria are met.
“At this point, the best evidence that we have is that 70% is where the spread will be lessened and we won’t see it. I don’t necessarily think that we are going to have to continue to be shut down until that 70% is met,” Wait said during a press conference at the Elkhart County Administration Building Friday morning. “That’s just our goal at this point in time. We don’t know. So, I will, we will, the community will continue to watch our numbers and see, so, what happens when schools fully come back? How do our rates go? If they look great, all right, what’s the next step? Can we get our restaurants, our businesses all up to 100% capacity and not have a spread?
“If we can do all of that, despite needing to have 70% of our community vaccinated, and we can reopen, I’m all for it. I don’t have any problem with that,” she added. “If I could look out into the future and say, you know, ‘July 27 is going to be the day that we can take off our masks and go about life as usual,’ that would be much easier. But I can’t. And so, that’s a goal. It’s not set in stone. We can always rescind orders if we feel like we’re doing good.”
She noted that the best recommendation she can give to people who want to see the county’s COVID-19 restrictions lifted is to continue following all of the recommended COVID-19 mitigation strategies, such as mask-wearing and social distancing.
“If our numbers look good, and we can continue to reopen, and people are good about wearing their masks and social distancing, yes, that is always a possibility, and that’s because we don’t necessarily know completely what this virus is going to do. We don’t know what’s going to happen with these variants,” she said. “We set the goal at 70%, and I would say the medical community sets the goal at 70%, and that’s what we’re going with. So, if we can see the numbers go down, our hospitals look better, our deaths are down, we can. It’s just going to be a matter of, one, how does the governor feel? We have to follow his guidance as well, and then go from there.”
According to Wait, Elkhart County’s COVID-19 positivity rate is in the range of 7%, which is the lowest the county has reported since March of 2020.
“So, we’re happy to see those numbers, and we will continue to have that as our goal for us to at least be in advisory level yellow, but hopefully in advisory level blue,” she said of the Indiana Department of Health’s metrics map for COVID-19 infection rates. “We bounced between 5% and 7% positivity, so we are approaching the blue. But we still continue to be yellow for this next week, and then we’ll reevaluate next week.”
Under the yellow advisory level, special events are currently restricted to a capacity of 50% or less, while a drop to the blue advisory level would see special event capacity rise to 100%, though appropriate social distancing, face covering and other safety precautions will continue to be required regardless of advisory level.
“So, we want people to continue to remember that if you want to have a special event, that you are going to have to do a safety plan for all social gatherings. You will send that in online to the health department, we will review it, and then we will forward it on to the city in which your event is in,” Wait said. “We will continue to work with organizations and businesses so we can try and get things to slowly reopen, but certainly we want to do it safely.”
Wait noted that as of Thursday, 17,976 first dose vaccinations had been administered in Elkhart County, while a total of 7,986 second dose vaccinations had been administered, meaning the recipients are now fully vaccinated.
“So, we’re slowly getting there,” she said. “Slowly but surely.”
Vaccine distribution in Indiana is prioritized by age, and on Wednesday state health officials announced that Indiana will lower the vaccination threshold to anyone 60 and older. According to Wait, the 60 and older age group represents 92.9% of COVID-19 deaths in District 2.
As for upcoming eligibility, Wait noted that the next age group set for eligibility will be Hoosiers 50 and older.
“That is a huge population, 857,000 individuals in the state of Indiana,” Wait said. “So, that will open up probably more toward the end of February.”
And in a change from previous groups, she noted that the 50 and older group will also be opened to residents with any of five specific co-morbidities, or underlying health conditions.
“They will include residents who have specific conditions: active dialysis patients, anyone with down syndrome, solid organ transplant recipients, sickle cell patients, and then any individual with criteria — meaning active treatment — for cancers, particularly blood cancers and primary lung cancers,” she said. “Those particular individuals have a high risk of death, and so that’s why the state is including them.”
AGE RANGE EXCEPTIONS
Asked if she has had any reports of local clinics administering vaccines outside of the designated age restrictions, Wait said she has heard of a few such instances, though most are out of her jurisdiction.
“The hard thing is, I’m separate from those places. At the health department, we’re extremely strict about making sure that we’re vaccinating the right people,” Wait said. “Have we ourselves at the health department vaccinated people outside of the age range? Yes we have. But mainly that has been when we have that last dose at the end of the day and we can’t find anybody.
“But I don’t have control over any of the other places,” she added. “The hospitals have been on board, and they are on board, about how they’re only going to vaccinate people who they need to vaccinate ... But I promise you, the state is watching, and making sure that we’re sticking with those guidelines.”