February 21, 2022

Coronavirus: Senate scales back vaccine mandate bill, IDOH issues new school guidance

The daily average for new cases last week was 1,423.9 – the lowest it's been since the first week of August. - (Lauren Chapman/IPB News)

The daily average for new cases last week was 1,423.9 – the lowest it's been since the first week of August.

(Lauren Chapman/IPB News)

A Senate committee dramatically scales back the House’s vaccine mandate bill. The Indiana Department of Health releases new school COVID-19 guidance. And COVID-19 data continues to improve.

THE DATA

Indiana continued its dramatic decline in new COVID-19 cases, reporting only 9,967 new cases in the last week. And the daily average for new cases was 1,423.9 – the lowest since the first week of August.

Four weeks ago, Indiana reported 98,331 new COVID-19 cases in a single week. That week, the state averaged more than 14,000 new cases per day.

Last week, the state’s COVID-19 hospital census dropped below 1,500 for the first time since Nov. 16. IDOH added 369 new deaths to its total in the last week.

THE STATE’S RESPONSE

IDOH eliminates contact tracing, quarantine guidance for schools

The Indiana Department of Health updated its quarantine guidance for schools, which goes into effect Wednesday Feb. 23. Students exposed to COVID-19 – but who do not have symptoms – will no longer be required to quarantine.

Quarantine is when a person has been exposed to a virus, and helps make sure they aren’t spreading it before developing symptoms or testing positive. Isolation is when a person has tested positive and has an active COVID-19 infection.

The recommendations IDOH issued Wednesday make several significant changes: no more contact tracing, case reporting or quarantining for students – regardless of school mask use or vaccination status.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Kris Box said these changes were made because of the significant decrease in cases following the omicron surge and the availability of vaccines to school-age children.

“While they do not remove the need for continued vigilance, they will ease the reporting burden on schools and help ensure that children can stay in school,” Box said in a statement.

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Positive COVID-19 trends prompts IDOH to make changes to testing, National Guard support

All of the positive trends in Indiana’s COVID-19 data has prompted IDOH to make several changes, in addition to the new school guidance issued Thursday.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway testing and vaccination clinic will end on Saturday Feb. 26.

Indiana National Guard support for long-term care facilities and hospitals will end on March 14.

And the IDOH mobile testing and vaccination strike teams – which are deployed to areas with high demand – will be suspended. Though mobile units are still available by request.

THE HEADLINES

Senate committee dramatically scales back COVID-19 vaccine mandate bill

Senate lawmakers Wednesday significantly scaled back legislation that would’ve largely prevented private employers from enforcing COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

And that prompted several Hoosiers who used to be in favor of the measure to testify against it.

The committee made several changes to HB 1001. Perhaps the most significant has to do with religious exemptions to getting the vaccine. Previously, the bill forced employers to honor those requested exemptions, no matter what.

READ MORE: IPB News 2022 legislative coverage

But now, employers must grant those exemptions based on compliance with existing federal law – so, essentially, the bill wouldn’t change the status quo.

Other changes to the bill would affect how employers require COVID-19 testing for their workers who don't get vaccinated. The measure would now allow businesses to require tests twice a week (up from once a week). And employers would not be barred from charging their employees for those tests, which the bill previously banned.

IU to lift its mask requirement in two weeks

Indiana University will end its mask mandate on all campuses beginning March 4.

A university spokesperson says student health and learning remain the primary focus, while pointing to declining case counts and the campus’s high rate of vaccination.

Data is clear that masking is an effective means of stemming virus transmission.

And IU spokesperson Chuck Carney said the university will continue to offer masks – both surgical and higher quality medical respirators – on campus.

"So, a lot of those factors came into it, because we're already in a safer place than many places because of the requirements that we have for our campus—all of our campuses," Carney said.

It could take a decade to rebuild nursing workforce in the state

Oni Thomas isn’t deterred by the current state of the nursing profession.

She was accepted into the Ivy Tech nursing program just as the pandemic was beginning two years ago.

“I know that a lot of people going into the profession were kind of hesitant, because they didn’t know what was going on,” Thomas said. “But really, it made me want to do it more, because I just wanted to help people.”

Thomas is entering a profession that already faced a worker shortage before the pandemic. Since early 2020, nursing has been hit particularly hard by the constant care of those suffering from COVID-19.

“It’s just people really working at full tilt for going on two years now,” said Brian Tabor, president of the Indiana Hospital Association. “The mental strain of the increased mortality of what folks are dealing with. You have nurses who not only are taking care of very, very sick patients, but dealing with masking regulations on the floor and you’re picking up extra shifts. I mean, it’s just been so difficult.”

National studies show that 1 in 5 health care workers have left the profession since the pandemic began.

And a survey by the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses reported two-thirds of intensive care nurses have considered leaving their jobs. By the end of this year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates nearly a half million nurses will retire.

Contact Lauren at lchapman@wfyi.org or follow her on Twitter at @laurenechapman_.

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