Indiana reports its first case of the COVID-19 variant omicron. Epidemiologists and hospitals sound the alarm as hospitalizations rise across the state. And Hoosiers testify on the House Republican bill that would effectively ban employer vaccine mandates.
Last week’s total of 30,714 newly reported cases was the first time new infections have dropped in six weeks. The average of new daily cases has nearly doubled from November to December.
The state’s hospital census has hovered around 3,000, after surpassing it for the first time in 2021 on Dec. 14. The Indiana Department of Health added 357 new deaths to its total in the last week.
Indiana’s COVID-19 hospital census surpassed 3,000 for the first time in 2021. And hospitals are stretched ahead of the holidays.
Dr. Scott Stienecker is an epidemiologist with the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America. He said several hospital systems in northeast Indiana are at 115 percent capacity.
There has been a rapid growth in new cases – still driven by the delta variant, which accounts for 99 percent of sampled cases, according to the Indiana Department of Health.
“Right now, to date, in the state of Indiana – 1 out of 10 to 1 out of 8 people has active COVID disease,” Stienecker said.
Stienecker said that’s based on positive cases, the positivity rate and estimates from the state and Regenstrief Institute.
Indiana University Health — the state’s largest health system — registered its highest in-patient census due to COVID-19 last week.
More than two-thirds of patients systemwide requiring intensive care are due to complications from COVID-19.
Brian Shockney, president of IU Health’s South-Central Region, said patients are being kept in areas that have never been used before.
“We’re using spaces in our facilities in the south-central region and in this district, that we’ve never used before to care for patients,” Shockney said.
Shockney said he remains optimistic the system can continue to care for patients even though elective procedures throughout the region have been cancelled. He reiterated the collective burden this puts on everyone.
“We need help,” he said.
THE OMICRON VARIANT
IDOH said in a news release the person who tested positive for the omicron variant was unvaccinated, and tested positive on Dec. 9. The COVID-19 strain has caused a rapid increase in cases throughout Europe, and was labeled a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization on Nov. 26.
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Indiana’s recent increase in new cases is not due to omicron – 99 percent of sampled tests in the state are still the delta variant.
The first confirmed case of the omicron variant in the U.S. was identified a little more than a week after its initial discovery in South Africa. While the World Health Organization has already listed omicron as a variant of concern, experts are still trying to learn about the new strain.
But, in contrast with other harmful variants of COVID-19, omicron’s early detection could help scientists get up to speed quickly.
Detecting coronavirus variants has been a challenge for U.S. health officials over the course of the pandemic. The country lags behind other industrialized nations when it comes to genomic sequencing — the process scientists use to analyze differences in the virus’s genetic code.
While omicron has spread quickly in some of the countries where it has been detected, Dr. Laura Morris, University of Missouri Health Care’s vaccine co-chair, said it’s too early to tell how it might spread in the U.S.
"It depends on geography, it depends on how quickly this variant enters into … our region. But it also maybe depends on some things we don’t know,” she said.
For example, will it be more transmissible? Will it make patients sicker?
"So far, that does not appear to be the case, but there are so few cases and not enough time has passed to … say that for sure,” Morris said.
Regardless, she said, from the little we know so far, there’s nothing to suggest the current best practices — masking and vaccination — will change.
THE STATE’S RESPONSE
Dozens of Hoosiers testified against a bill Thursday that would weaken employer vaccination requirements. During the seven-hour committee hearing, most said they were unhappy it doesn’t ban company mandates, while business groups said it goes too far in regulating employers.
House Bill 1001 would allow employers to require vaccinations, but force them to make exceptions for people who recovered from COVID-19 in the last six months, along with standard medical exemptions. It also allows employees to opt out for religious reasons "without further inquiry” from the business.
Although it wasn't in the text at the time of the hearing, bill author Rep. Matt Lehman (R-Berne) said he was looking to add language that penalizes employers that don't comply. He said they may seek to make employees fired for refusing to comply with COVID-19 vaccination eligible for unemployment insurance.
Then, he proposed the state would attempt to pay their benefits solely from the former employer's contributions to the unemployment insurance trust fund.
Indiana House Republicans have tied a controversial push to effectively ban private companies from enforcing COVID-19 vaccine mandates to language that would help end the state’s public health emergency.
There will be an effort in the upcoming session to split those provisions apart.
Gov. Eric Holcomb requested three administrative changes in state law that would allow him to end the state’s public health emergency without costing the state hundreds of millions in federal funding tied to the pandemic.
But House Republicans then included into the proposed bill their language about COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
Holcomb wants those two things separated into different measures.
“So, why not deal with what we agree on, get that out of the way, and then have our discussion,” Holcomb said.
The University of Notre Dame announced Dec. 6 it would require all students to get a COVID-19 booster shot. The university is now requiring all faculty and staff to get their boosters as well.
In a letter to faculty and staff Wednesday, university officials announced the deadline to get a booster will be March 1, 2022. If yet not eligible, faculty and staff must get a booster as soon as they are six months (Moderna and Pfizer) or two months (Johnson & Johnson) past their original vaccination.
New numbers from the Indiana State Supreme Court show low participation in the eviction diversion program launched in November.
Between Nov. 1 and Dec. 10, tenants and landlords were advised on eviction diversion resources in 1,475 cases as part of the new state requirement. But just 87 cases – roughly 6 percent – then proceeded into the state’s eviction diversion program.
Brandon Beeler is a tenant advocate with Indiana Legal Services.
“To me, the numbers say not a lot of participation. The diversion at this point we need to really look at is why people are not participating in it,” he said. “I don’t think anyone could argue that’s a high number.”
Beeler raised concerns about participation in the state’s landlord tenant settlement conference back in August. The diversion program launched in November includes some tweaks to settlement conferences, including sealing eviction cases – which keeps eviction cases from showing up on tenants' permanent records.
National studies show mental health challenges have increased because of the coronavirus pandemic – and more so in college-age people. But college counseling centers saw a decline in those seeking services at the same time.
The American Psychological Association has conducted annual surveys of mental health since 2007. During the pandemic years, it showed that while all ages of people had increased stress due to COVID-19, numbers were greatest in college-age people.
Bill Betts leads Ball State University’s Counseling Center.
“When you take that and look at [Generation] Z, which is our students, 45 percent of Gen Z adults said they do not know how to manage the stress they feel due to coronavirus,” Betts said. “And that’s this year, that’s this fall.”
He said despite that increase, the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State found that, in a national survey, university counseling centers saw a 32 percent average drop in students seeking help during the fall of 2020. Ball State’s center saw a 25 percent decrease.