INDIANAPOLIS – On Sunday, the news we had waited almost 10 months to hear came true: Pfizer and German biotech firm BioNTech said their coronavirus vaccine was more than 90% effective in preventing Covid-19. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla hailed the development as a “great day for science and humanity.”

But after a weekend when the Indiana State Department of Health reported almost 10,000 new COVID infections and nearly 100 deaths, Brian Tabor sounded the alarms, stating the obvious as Hoosiers moved from elections to the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season. “All Hoosiers should be alarmed at the COVID-19 trends we are seeing across the state,” said Tabor, president of the Indiana Hospital Association. “In recent weeks, new cases have reached the highest level to date and hospitalizations have increased by 143% since October 1. Many hospitals are reporting staff shortages as the pandemic takes its toll — Hoosier nurses, doctors, and other front-line hospital staff have been working non-stop since the early spring. 

“Please give these courageous health care heroes some much-needed relief by wearing a face covering, practicing social distancing, washing your hands, and staying home when you are sick. We need everyone to take these steps to relieve the enormous strain on the system at this critical time,” Tabor concluded.

By Thursday, Indiana logged 6,654 cases in one day, and 51 deaths, bringing the death toll to 4,563 since March.

The Wall Street Journal  reported on Wednesday that the U.S. set another single-day record for coronavirus cases, as the total number of new infections topped 136,000, while hospitalizations due to Covid-19 were at their highest level since the pandemic began. The New York Times reported that while this “winter wave” had been anticipated for months, the surging coronavirus was exploiting a “federal leadership vacuum.” The Strategic National Stockpile, the nation’s emergency reserve, has only 115 million N95 masks, far short of the 300 million the administration had hoped to amass by winter, Rear Adm. John Polowczyk said in a recent interview.

By Wednesday, Gov. Eric Holcomb announced a return to restrictions, noting when he put the state on Stage 5, the infection rate was under 5%, exploding to 11% this week. 

“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. “Unfortunately, too many of us have let our guards down. Stage 5 has been viewed by some as a reason to return to the days when we had never heard of the pandemic, rather than doing the things that had allowed us to reopen. Rather than doing the things that we had been doing that allowed us to open our restaurants and shops and museums and attractions to full capacity — while maintaining social distancing and wearing mask coverings — too many have said ‘We’ll just ride it out, and if I get it so be it.’ And that brings us to where we are today.”

Holcomb said beginning this weekend, orange counties will be limited to social gatherings of 50 people or fewer. Red counties will be limited to gatherings of 25 people or fewer. Most of the state’s counties are designated orange. Nine counties are red. Churches are exempt.

Indiana Health Commissioner Kristina Box added, “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.”

By Wednesday, 74% of the state’s ICU beds were occupied.

Since the weekend, ISHD reported 5,156 cases on Wednesday, 4,879 on Tuesday and 4,213 on Monday. Included in the positive COVID statistics were Columbia City Mayor Ryan Daniel and Crown Point Mayor David Uran, with U.S. Sen Todd Young in quarantine due to a staff exposure. The Associated Press reported that new hospitalization numbers marked an 84% jump in Indiana’s COVID-19 patients during the past month, the data show. With Monday’s 4,213 new cases, Indiana’s seven-day rolling average for newly confirmed coronavirus cases was 4,212, more than 214% from a month ago. 

Testing that was supposed to be accessible and free on the north side of Indianapolis was hard to find, with Walgreen’s charging $139 per test.

Gov. Holcomb and President Trump had been silent this week by this pandemic onslaught. Trump has still not addressed the crisis. Vice President Pence postponed a vacation to Sanibel Island to chair the first White House Coronavirus Task Force meeting in weeks on Monday. Trump hasn’t appeared at a task force meeting in months (nor has he taken a Presidential Daily Briefing in weeks).
 
“We’re not seeing the appropriate response from our political leadership,” said Dr. Richard Besser of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and a former CDC commissioner. “People are tired of doing the things that really work. Since we’re not seeing our federal leaders standing up, we need the governors to step up.”

Asked during his weekly webinar what medical experts are advising political leaders, Indiana University Dr. Aaron Carroll responded, “At an advisory level, we are pushing as hard as we can. We need to take strong action. I’m sure our governor is hearing from a different level they want businesses to remain open.”

Carroll added, “If everyone was masking up, we’d see some very different outcomes in Indiana.”

The problem on that front is that masks became a politcal wedge issue during the presidential campaign, while Holcomb has left his mask mandate without an enforcement mechanism. Local health officials have been forced to deal with city and county councils, who have been reluctant to act due to real and perceived opposition ranging from Trump supporters to those of Libertarian nominee Donald Rainwater, who won a historic high 11% of the gubernatorial vote last week.

Holcomb has said since last winter that he would follow the metrics and would act to keep the state medical systems from being swamped. But according to Tabor and hospital officials in Goshen, Richmond and South Bend, that is already happening. 

Richmond’s Reid Hospital set a new capacity record on Monday. Dr. Thomas Huth, Reid’s vice president of medical affairs, is afraid those records won’t last long, telling the Richmond Palladium-Item, “We are asking everyone to please, please not ignore masking, distancing and other safety measures.”

That was echoed by President-elect Joe Biden, who said at a Monday press conference, “Please, I implore you, wear a mask. It is not a political statement. That is how we get our nation back up to speed. We see over and over how small acts add up to a great achievement. So let’s wear a mask.”

With the Pfizer announcement, the speculation is that state leaders are simply going to try and “manage” the crush of humanity and wait until the vaccine is widely available sometime between December and June. The rising dilemma is with Thanksgiving and Christmas just weeks away, the medical systems are going to be tested in a way not seen since the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919.

Biden is expected to lobby governors and, if unresponsive, mayors to implore mask usage. But with President Trump unwilling to concede the election, and if he voluntarily leaves office, is expected to continue his opposition to his successor, America is poised to ride out this historic pandemic in a disjointedly deadly fashion. 

The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana.