The Delta coronavirus variant, which has caused mini-surges of COVID-19 in other states, is now the dominant variant in Indiana, state health officials said Friday at the first coronavirus briefing in more than a month.
Since June 11 at least 80 cases involving the variant, first identified in India, have been discovered in the state, making up more than 55% of all variant cases detected. Not only is the Delta variant more readily transmitted from person to person, there’s some indication it may cause more severe disease, said Indiana State Health Commissioner Dr. Kris Box.
Covid-19 outbreaks at Indiana care facilities
But it is the Alpha variant, which over time has been the most prevalent here, that was at least partly to blame in one of four outbreaks in long-term care facilities in Howard, Fulton, Howard and Gibson counties, Box said. At least 27 cases have occurred in those four facilities and seven people have died.
Most of those who have fallen ill were people who were either unvaccinated or partially vaccinated.
The Alpha variant, which comprises the bulk of the variant strains detected in Indiana since the state started testing for variants a few months ago, was found in some of the Howard County outbreak cases, Box said. The state is performing analyses on samples from the other facilities.
Indiana has seen 3,989 cases of the Alpha variant, first identified in the United Kingdom, the vast majority of the 5,203 variant cases found. More than 62% of positive COVID samples tested have been associated with one of the variants.
Outbreaks may become more common
Box said outbreaks like the ones in the long-term care facilities may become more common.
“Unfortunately, we do expect to continue to see outbreaks especially in areas with low vaccination rates,” Box said.
Currently about 49% of the state’s eligible population, 12 and older, or nearly 2.9 million people have been vaccinated.
After a lull in cases, during which the positivity rate in the state dropped as low as 2.1%, the state’s COVID numbers are ticking back up. Just minutes after Box wrapped the update, the state reported 400 daily new cases, the highest number in recent weeks. Hospitalizations have also risen slightly, above 410 after a low of 369 in late June.
State health officials at Friday’s press conference also discussed:
While most of the COVID cases currently occurring have been among those who are unvaccinated, the state has seen more than 2,700 breakthrough cases among the vaccinated population.
Of those, 132 have required hospitalization and 46 have died, Box said. More than 90% of those who have died have been over age 65 and the median age of death is 81.
“These data clearly show that the vaccines are extremely effective at preventing severe illness that can lead to hospitalization and death,” Box said.
Gap in vaccine uptake
Lack of interest in vaccine persists in certain groups, said Dr. Lindsay Weaver, chief medical officer, with interest decreasing with each age group. Only about 1/3 of people 16 to 29 are vaccinated and fewer than 20% of those ages 12 to 16.
A mobile unit will offer vaccines at county fairs throughout the summer and vaccines will also be available at the Indiana Black Expo’s Minority Health Fair and the Indiana State Fair and the Brickyard 400.
Some people may also be waiting for the Food and Drug Administration to give full approval to the vaccines, which for now just have emergency use authorization.
State health officials say they are working shot by shot to increase the percentage of vaccinated Indiana residents, but allowed that they would like to see improvement in the current numbers, which are lower than the national average.
“So obviously we’re disappointed, we would rather be higher,” Box said, adding later, “it’s a person by person thing and we can all be vaccine ambassadors.”
Vaccine myths and concerns
State health officials said that they are working to dispel common myths about the vaccine. For instance, some people have suggested that because Box’s name is on the vaccine order, she or the state health department profit from each shot delivered.
“That’s “absolutely false,” she said.
Some parents may be reluctant to vaccinate their children because of reports of myocarditis, a condition in which the heart becomes inflamed, in young people after receiving the vaccine, Weaver said. However, she added the risk of this side effect remains very low, while the risks associated with COVID are much higher.
“As a parent, I will take those odds,” she said, adding that as a pediatrician she urges other parents to have their children vaccinated.
What’s happening with schools
Indiana has been following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for schools, Box said. Friday the CDC issued guidelines that said vaccinated teachers and students do not need mask up on campus this coming school year.
In Indiana, local communities can make their own decisions about how to handle unvaccinated students this year, Box said, as the amount of disease present may differ from county to county.
The CDC continues to recommend that anyone unvaccinated, which would include most elementary school children at this point, wear masks inside and keep a three-foot distance. Close contacts of people who test positive who are not vaccinated must quarantine while those who are vaccinated can return to school as long as they have no symptoms of the virus.
“We all want this next school year to look more normal than it has in the last 16 months, but we also want schools to remember that COVID-19 is a communicable disease,” Weaver said. “You would not let someone with measles or chickenpox continue to come to school and put others at risk. COVID-19 is the same situation.”
What to expect this fall
Indiana will continue to collect data on COVID-19 cases, state health officials said. The state will continue to do contact tracing, with about 400 state contact tracers. However rather than contacting every single person who tests positive individually, the tracers will focus on outbreaks that occur in congregate settings, such as long-term care facilities, schools or industries, Box said.