In an atmosphere where the news has gone from bad to much worse, Gov. Eric Holcomb was right on Wednesday to extend Indiana's COVID-19 mask mandate beyond Saturday.
But ironically, the surge in new cases comes just three weeks after Holcomb moved the state to Stage 5 of the Back on Track plan, clearing restaurants, bars and other businesses to return to full- or near-full capacity service. As winter closes in, and Hoosiers begin to chafe at the prospect of being stuck indoors until spring, it's difficult not to wonder whether a more extended return to what many people regard as “normal” might have protected more vulnerable Hoosiers.
The Indiana State Department of Health reported another 1,172 cases and 14 deaths on Wednesday to bring the total number of cases to more than 138,000 since March, with 3,609 total deaths and 1,372 hospitalized. Wednesday's case numbers were down from the record high number of 1,945 cases reported on Oct. 10.
Given State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box's stunning announcement Wednesday that she, her daughter and her grandson tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend, it fell to State Medical Director Dr. Lindsay Weaver on Wednesday to remind Hoosiers that Stage 5 is the “new normal.” Weaver urged Hoosiers to wear masks, practice social distancing, avoid large social groups and get tested if they feel sick.
In reminding residents that “the bill is coming due,” Holcomb was realistic in his assessment that many Hoosiers seem to lack the capacity to take the pandemic seriously.
Nationally, 31 states have reported sharp increases in the number of cases and deaths over the past two weeks, and public health professionals who warned of a coming surge in new cases and fatalities have seen their predictions borne out. Even the city of Chicago issued a mandate to residents traveling to and from Indiana for non-essential reasons, requiring those arriving and returning to quarantine for 14 days to prevent spread of the virus.
Holcomb was right to extend the mask mandate for one simple reason: Used correctly and as part of a comprehensive transmission prevention regimen, masks are proven to work. But extending the Stage 5 designation sends a mixed message to those eager to put all restrictions aside.
Holcomb and Weaver, the State Department of Health official, said they are proud of Indiana's contact tracing program as an important feature in the plan to curb the spread of the virus, but several states around the country are reporting that more than half of people who test positive have no idea where or how they caught the virus. More than half of infections can't be traced back to a single source, and Weaver reported that some Hoosiers are refusing to participate in contact tracing.
The claim that too much testing causes viral surges has been thoroughly debunked. When more than 5% of all tests are positive, that suggests there should be far more testing. Holcomb and Weaver pointed to an abundance of test sites and more testing availability as an important weapon in the state's virus-fighting arsenal, and they're right. In a murky landscape, a widespread and readily available testing program could have helped stem the spread when the virus first appeared, and can go a long way toward keeping it at bay until a vaccine or treatment is widely available.
Holcomb lauded Hoosiers for their “ability to respond to unpredictable change.” Given the unpredictable changes that are about to hit us all where we live, it's time for all Hoosiers to respond – beginning with strict adherence to the mask mandate.