By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS – COVID-19 is winning in Indiana.

The pandemic will become a fact of life, moving forward, with half the Hoosier population taking the free, easily obtained mitigation that the vaccine offers, as well as a willingness to mask up to protect friends, family and community. The other half, in a self-declarative pursuit of “individual freedom,” is willing to risk health, lives and in-person learning in schools to do whatever it is they desire.

Indiana’s leading public officeholders have acquiesced to this COVID-19 victory. Hoosier public health officials from Indianapolis to Spencer to Evansville have stated their cases and are now preparing to deal with sprawling consequences like exhausted doctors and nurses, and scores of unvaccinated school girls and boys facing exposure. The state announced more than 5,000 infections at Indiana schools on Monday.

Those are the takeaways from last Friday’s pandemic press conference conducted by Health Commissioner Kris Box and Chief Medical Officer Lindsay Weaver. Box described this state of 6.7 million people as entering its “darkest hour of the pandemic.”

Dr. Weaver added, “It is incredibly heartbreaking as a health care provider to care for somebody who is sick and dying because they haven’t been vaccinated. It’s young people, pregnant women, older people, and honestly for a lifetime of being OK with people ignoring my medical advice, this is different, and it’s feeling for the health care workforce because it’s not just them that’s dying; it’s other people who are also getting very sick from it.”

Missing from this scene was Gov. Eric Holcomb, who for about 13 months had been the transparent spokesman, advocate and “decider” for the pandemic. Like President Trump back in the spring of 2020, Holcomb engaged in a weekly pandemic “show.” But unlike Trump, he advocated social distancing and masking. When the vaccine was announced, Holcomb was an ardent proponent, publicly receiving the vaccine at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with General Assembly leaders and members of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus.

But since he gave his “light at the end of the tunnel” speech in late March, he’s been inconspicuous, even as this avoidable fourth surge began spiking in late July among the unvaccinated at first in the Deep South, and now spreading northward across our state, just as schools began reopening for in-person instruction. Indiana Democrats are pointing out that he last attended a pandemic briefing 153 days ago.

Holcomb signed Executive Orders 21-22 and 21-23 on Monday. In Executive Order 21-22, Gov. Holcomb renewed the public health emergency for 30 days. It is set to expire on Sept. 30, 2021. The governor also signed 21-23, which extends the Executive Order specific to COVID-19 through Sept. 1. The short-term extension will allow for ongoing conversations with healthcare stakeholders to evaluate pertinent information that supports hospitals during the current COVID surge.

The vaccine has become politicized, with most Indiana counties which voted for Donald Trump in 2020 languishing in the 30th percentile for fully vaccinated.

Now the state is facing another 6,000 deaths and the specter of schools shifting to virtual learning formats while local governments fight over masking and other mitigation policies. The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation is forecasting 100,000 additional COVID-19 deaths in the United States by Dec. 1. As for Indiana, which had 14,190 deaths as of Aug. 19, it is forecasting 21,485 deaths by Dec. 1, peaking at 131 per day by Oct. 15. It is projecting 6,500 daily hospitalizations by October.

The COVID-19 pandemic has become the most lethal health sequence in the state’s 205 years, far surpassing the estimated 10,000 lives taken during the 1918/1919 Spanish flu pandemic. It has been a maddening microbe, leaving upwards of 40% of guest bodies asymptomatic, while dealing a cruel blow to those who ended up in a crowded ICU ward (or hospital hallway or temporary tent), and, for 14,000 Hoosiers, an early grave.

There are now thousands of kids, teachers and staff who are either hospitalized, in quarantine, or reverting back to virtual learning due to the fast spreading Delta variant. Indiana schools reported 5,529 student COVID-19 cases in the last week, including 612 among teachers and staff. Some 12% of schools are not reporting, while 27% of new cases since the ISDH update on Friday have been kids under 18.

“Many of our hospitals are once again struggling with staffing and capacity issues,” said Dr. Box, who described a “sharp increase” in the number of pediatric cases involving 5- to 9-year-olds as well as older teenagers. “Nearly 2,200 Hoosiers are currently hospitalized with COVID. Keep in mind our peak was just under 3,400 patients. We see available ICU beds fall again, which impacts every Hoosier in need of critical medical care.”

Box said four of 10 regional hospital districts are utilizing “more than 100%” of ICU beds.

“We have also seen an increase in children being hospitalized,” Box said. “Many of these children are not yet eligible to be vaccinated. To anyone who argues that COVID-19 does not impact children, I can assure you that every parent with a hospitalized child would disagree. This surge continues to be fueled by the extremely infectuous Delta variant.

“None of this is good news for Hoosiers,” Dr. Box said. “I’ve heard other medical professionals around the country state that this is ... the darkest time in the pandemic. Unfortunately, I share those sentiments.

“I want Hoosiers to know this surge isn’t just impacting those diagnosed with COVID. It impacts the person who needs a biopsy to see if he or she has cancer,” Dr. Box said. “The accident victim who gets held in an emergency room because there isn’t enough staff to put them in a room. The person who is depending on a joint replacement to relieve them of extreme pain. I saw a photograph of a young cancer patient from Indiana sitting in the back of a van instead of being in a hospital where there were no beds for him.”

“I think we are fully preparing that things are going to get much worse with our hospitalizations in the next four weeks,” said Dr. Weaver, the state’s chief medical officer.

This comes as the Indiana General Assembly took steps last winter to mitigate the input of the governor and local health officials. The gubernatorial powers Holcomb exercised in March 2020 are no longer in full effect, compromising his political capital as a parallel result.

Holcomb’s limited public access

Holcomb has since limited his public access to scheduled events. When Howey Politics Indiana asked for an interview as this fourth surge began in July, Holcomb’s office referred us to the ISDH and said he would be available for comment at public events.

“Indiana is ‘on fire’ yet again as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have reached levels not seen since last winter, and yet, Gov. Holcomb is forcing the media to chase him down to get answers on how the state is responding to the latest surge brought on by the Delta variant. It’s long past time for Governor Eric Holcomb to provide an update with Hoosiers about the coronavirus,” said Lauren Ganapini, executive director of the Indiana Democratic Party.

Last week he was asked about the surge while appearing at a NWI Times event. “I’m good with where we are from a state perspective,” Holcomb said. “What we want to do as a state is to make sure local authorities have the resources that they need. And that may be endless, but we’re going to work on it every single day – together. We know 98% or 99% of all positive cases, week after week after week, are unvaccinated; positive hospitalizations, unvaccinated; intensive care unit beds, unvaccinated; deaths, unvaccinated – so we know the answer to prevent those adverse reactions. We’re trying to make sure we’re doing everything we can to equip local authorities to make the decisions to be as safe as they can depending on the local data, literally in their neighborhood.”

Last Wednesday, he said he would not reimpose a mask mandate. “We are not going to have a mask mandate. We are not going to mandate everyone doing one thing when this is different per community,” Holcomb said. “The goal that the state of Indiana has is to make sure they have (vaccine) access. It’s easy, it’s free.”

That came two days after ISDH reported 43 counties were in Indiana’s second-riskiest category for the spread of the virus, up from 29 counties a week earlier, while about 1,300 Hoosiers currently are hospitalized with COVID-19, according to the most recent data released by the state health department. Since then, infection rates have increased to up to 5,000 per day.

Dialogue with the Governor

Dr. Box was asked about dialogue with Holcomb about the surge and masking. “There’s always a conversation with the governor on-going about everything with regard to this pandemic and that hasn’t changed from Day One,” Dr. Box said. “I’m sure it won’t change until we finish this. I will say that whether we have a mask mandate or not, the bottom line is masking is the mitigation effort that will decrease transmission of this Delta variant, until we get out of this surge. I’m not talking about this fall or even into June of 2022, but right now we have to decrease the transmission in the state of Indiana and masking and getting vaccinated are the main ways we’re going to do that.”

As Friday’s pandemic media avail continued, it became increasingly apparent that Dr. Box and Weaver were becoming frustrated.

Asked about widespread non-compliance of CDC guidelines involving masking, Weaver and Box appeared unsure of how to respond. “I think this is a time when lives have felt very out of control for a lot of people across our state and the ability to have control over something that is important to them that is something very difficult to give up,” Box continued. “I do not understand how wearing a mask is so difficult.”

Pressed by reporters over the patchwork of local masking and learning strategies, many of which have been reversed in recent days, Box said, “I don’t know how we could have messaged or planned or made available for vaccinations any better than we’ve done. I’ll be very honest with you; the accessibility of these vaccines, our partnership with local public health and with our hospital systems across the state and our National Guard have been absolutely remarkable. I really feel we have done everything within our power to make this vaccine available to speak to the risks associated with this vaccine, which are minimal, and over and over again the benefits of being fully vaccinated.”

KPC News reporter Steve Garbacz asked for their reaction to a Whitley County Board of Commissioners decision that would allow those in close contact with a COVID case but showing no symptoms to continue to work or school. Dr. Box responded, “Very very early in this process we did a Fairbanks study where we tested people, we just randomly tested people and it became very clear 45% of individuals who tested positive were totally asymptomatic at the time they tested positive. So we know that 100% up to 48 hours before and with the delta variant it may be longer than that so we know you are infecting other people. So that’s why the allowing people to show up to school or work concept doesn’t work. It is absolutely incorrect and not an appropriate or science-based process.”

When Garbacz asked about Indiana feed and livestock stores running out of invermectin, the horse/cattle deworming drug that has been recommended by several Fox News talk show hosts, Weaver said, “It is not proven to be beneficial. It could actually harm you.” Dr. Box added, “Don’t take a medicine that is prescribed for especially large animals. That’s my recommendation.”

This exchange was followed by nervous laughter, the kind of dark humor often expressed during grueling sequences.

When WTHR-TV’s Rich Nye pressed them on a breakdown in pediatric pandemic cases and a lack of contact tracing by school districts, there was acknowledgement of the current dangers.

Dr. Box responded, “Most certainly having students in school together and doing extracurricular activities is contributing to these cases. We could definitely decrease these cases and transmissions if students would be fully masked, all day, in school. All students, teachers and staff. It is difficult know exactly what is happening when schools are not willing to report cases and not willing to report close contacts and we are working with schools and talking to the Department of Education about what future actions or supports will be given schools.”

At the end of the press conference, Box and Weaver were reminded by a reporter that this isn’t the first time “we’ve heard you urge people to get vaccinated. Is there a point when somebody has to do something to stop it?”

Box responded, “I am not sure what additional things to do. Even last year when we had a mask mandate there were many areas of our state that chose to totally ignore that mask mandate. We can show the data showing how this is affecting Hoosiers, even Hoosiers who are fully vaccinated in their health care. People feel very strongly this is a personal thing and they want to have control over and I understand that.

“I do not understand how wearing a mask is so difficult for people to prevent transmitting this virus,” Box continued. “We are incredibly blest to have these vaccines that are incredibly safe at the same time. Other than continuing to impress upon people the importance on this and the effects their decisions have on other people ...”

After describing the “darkest times of the pandemic” approaching, the health officials were asked, “Where do you see pandemic going?”

“For two to four weeks, no, things are going to get worse if Hoosiers do not start wearing masks and more Hoosiers don’t get vaccinated,” Dr. Box said. “We are going to see cases continue to increase until right after Labor Day and then we will see hospitalizations follow as far as their increase over the next two to three weeks. I think the things we are able to control by getting vaccines now is if we have another surge later this fall or winter.”

Dr. Weaver: “I think we are fully preparing for things getting much worse with our hospitalizations in the next four weeks.”

Politicized vaccine

Clearly the wide gulf between the vaccinated and unvaccinated follows the 2020 presidential map, both nationally and in Indiana. The vaccines were developed under President Trump, but he was angered when they weren’t released for use prior to his loss to Democrat Joe Biden in November 2020. He refused to take the vaccine publicly while in office. Since then, use of the vaccine has followed the 2020 political contours.

Earlier this month at a MAGA rally in Alabama, Trump recommended the vaccine. “I recommend take the vaccines. I did it. It’s good. Take the vaccines,” he said.

Some boos rang out from the crowd, who were largely maskless, signaling that even Donald Trump cannot control the vax recalcitrance. “No, that’s OK. That’s all right. You got your freedoms. But I happened to take the vaccine. If it doesn’t work, you’ll be the first to know. OK? I’ll call up Alabama, I’ll say, hey, you know what? But [the vaccine] is working.”

Recalibrating COVID expectations

The other question is: What are we actually trying to achieve in the United States? If the goal is getting to zero infections and staying at that level before dropping restrictions, one set of policies apply. If the goal is to make this virus like the seasonal flu, a different set of policies should follow.

While a number of political figures have recorded videos and PSAs – most notably U.S. Rep. Larry Bucshon, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Illinois Gov. Pritzker, Lafayette Mayor Tony Roswarski, West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis and Tippecanoe County Commissioner Tom Murtaugh – most Hoosier Republicans haven’t. That is due, in part apparently, to fear of a political backlash, or baked-in attitudes that have about half of the population unmoved toward the vaccine.

Previous governors like Mitch Daniels haven’t been reticent about using their ample political capital to move Hoosiers into a better place. Gov. Holcomb’s polling may be showing that expenditure of that capital may not produce a policy dividend and, with the GOP primary electorate, may pose a future risk.

Meanwhile, Lafayette’s Dave Bangert describes a video of Schanna Lawinger, a registered nurse at Franciscan Health, who looks the part when she looks into the camera for a new video plea from Lafayette’s hospital strained by the latest COVID-19 surge and says: “We’re exhausted.”

This pandemic has been exhausting for everyone it has touched, from governors and mayors to health commissioners, doctors, nurses and other first responders and caregivers.

The unfortunate truth facing us all here in the dog days of August 2021 – which had been expected to be the new era of the post-COVID promised land – is that here in the Hoosier State, the virus appears to have won an extended lease on life.