INDIANAPOLIS – After weeks of COVID-19 cases and deaths climbing, Gov Eric Holcomb announced Wednesday that most of Indiana will have new social gathering restrictions and attendance at K-12 events will be limited.
The move comes as the state has more Hoosiers than ever before hospitalized for the novel coronavirus and some hospitals are delaying procedures and diverting patients elsewhere.
“We must do all we can to protect our hospital capacity so they can protect patients and care for them – not only for those who have the COVID but for cancer patients and heart patients who need care,” Holcomb said.
The new rules apply to counties in orange or red according to case and positivity metrics. All but five counties are in orange or red as of Wednesday – including all of northeast Indiana. The new restrictions go into place Sunday though exact wording from the executive order wasn't available. The new rules are set for 30 days.
Holcomb is getting rid of the stage approach he has used since May and now will rely solely on the color-coded county map updated every Wednesday.
He said Hoosiers mistakenly believed that Stage 5 – the final one he instituted – meant going back to normal. That led to Indiana's positivity rate rising from 3.9% in September to 10.3%.
Holcomb denied waiting until after the election to crack down – even though metrics have been moving in the wrong direction for a month.
“I applaud the governor for reversing his position and upping COVID restrictions,” said John Zody, Indiana Democratic Party chairman. “Whether or not the politics clouded Holcomb's judgment, the public health data has been blinking red for weeks. His inaction to date has resulted in Indiana hospitals being overrun and health care workers nearing exhaustion.”
On Wednesday, the state set a new record for daily positive cases at 5,156. Thirty-one new deaths brings the state total to 4,512. Four more Allen County residents died and 409 tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total to 12,413 cases and 250 deaths Wednesday.
Holcomb said he is taking action to give relief to the stressed health care system.
“We applaud the steps announced by the governor today, and it is urgent that all elected officials at the federal, state, and local levels collaborate on the steps needed to slow the spread,” said Brian Tabor, president of the Indiana Hospital Association. “Our front-line health care heroes need all Hoosiers to understand how dangerous the current trends are – COVID-19 hospitalizations have increased by 164% since Oct. 1 with today seeing an all-time high in hospitalizations of 2,544.”
State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box said the second surge is expected to continue for a number of weeks but could be longer depending on individual actions. She said she understands pandemic fatigue – noting employees are being told to come to work even if quarantined and parents are refusing to get their children tested for fear of having to quarantine.
“I understand that this is hard. This entire year has been hard but it is going to get even harder if we don't recommit to those very basic mitigation procedures, ... wearing a mask, socially distancing, staying home if you are sick and getting tested and washing your hands,” she said.
Holcomb said businesses will remain open but operators and patrons must meet certain requirements – such as having signs requiring face coverings and admitting only those who follow the rule.
He said the Indiana Department of Homeland Security and the Alcohol and Tobacco Commission will check businesses for occupancy, face covering use and social distancing – in consultation with local partners and citizen input – to ensure compliance.
And the state is creating a new $20 million grant program for local units of government to use for event planning review, public awareness and enforcement.
State and local agencies can pull business permits needed to operate, though it has happened only sparingly. Earlier this year, the state issued more than 100 verbal warnings to businesses but only one cease-and-desist letter.
Box said it has been encouraging to see positive progress on a safe, effective vaccine as well as therapeutic treatments for the virus.
Dr. Lindsay Weaver, chief medical officer for the Indiana State Department of Health, said when the state receives the vaccine it won't be used until federal approval is given and a state panel approves it. The Pfizer vaccine requires ultra-cold storage and the state is actively working with hospitals to receive the vaccine. Five pilot hospitals will receive the initial doses – including Parkview Health in Fort Wayne.
At a glance
• Church services are exempt from the following gathering restrictions for counties:
Allen, Adams, DeKalb, Huntington, Noble, Steuben, Wabash, Wells and Whitley
• Social gatherings limited to 50 people – indoor or outdoor
• Special events with more than 50 require approval by local health departments
• Attendance at indoor K-12 extracurricular activities is limited to 25%
• Social gatherings limited to 25 people – indoor or outdoor
• Attendance at indoor K-12 extracurricular activities is limited to participants, support personnel and parents
• Local officials may limit hours of bars, nightclubs and restaurants
• Special events with more than 25 people require approval of safety plans but are not advised to be held; includes college and professional sports
• Senior care activities suspended
• Hospitals and nursing homes may impose visitation limitations
• Common areas and break rooms should be closed