High-risk locations for COVID-19 double in state

By CASEY SMITH
The Associated Press/Report for America

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana officials are expanding efforts to address a “surge” of coronavirus cases in long-term care facilities as the state continues to record sharp increases in hospitalizations and new infections.

More than 55% of the state’s recorded COVID-19 deaths have occurred in long-term care facilities and the case counts in such environments continue to rise, said Indiana State Health Department Chief Medical Officer Dr. Lindsay Weaver.

To slow the spread of the virus, Weaver and Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb announced during a news briefing Wednesday that the state will employ members of Indiana National Guard to help with infection control practices, including improved COVID-19 testing for long-term care facility residents and employees. New rounds of protective gear like masks, gowns and face shields are also being shipped out to the facilities, Holcomb said.

Additionally, the state will hire more clinical staff who have volunteered to help as part of the reserve workforce, allowing all facilities to be visited at least three times a week to ensure proper health protocols are in place.

Long-term care facilities with one or more confirmed COVID-19 cases will be prioritized, Holcomb said. The goal is to have plans in motion by Nov. 1 and for efforts to continue for the rest of year.

“The bottom line is to provide some relief for the staff members, and to educate and improve all of those known to be working infection control procedures,” Holcomb said.

The announcement comes after the Indiana Department of Health on Wednesday nearly doubled the number of counties designated as higher-risk locations for COVID-19 spread.

Forty of Indiana’s 92 counties were placed in orange or red levels under the agency’s color-coded weekly tracking map update, while 22 counties were at those levels last week.

Holcomb decided three weeks ago to lift nearly all of Indiana’s restrictions while extending the statewide mask mandate. He announced last week another month-long renewal of the mask order until at least Nov. 14.

The governor, up for re-election in November, defended his actions again Wednesday, emphasizing that avoiding further statewide restrictions “has nothing to do with any campaign,” adding that the state will continue its mask mandate as long as it's helping to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

Still, some longtime Republicans say they’ll be voting for Libertarian Donald Rainwater, who said during the gubernatorial debate Tuesday evening that Holcomb’s executive action exceeds the Constitution’s intent and infringes on individual liberty.

“We’re not living in a police state, and our liberties do need to be protected,” Holcomb said during Wednesday's news briefing. “We can go through why masks are safe until we’re blue in the face, but we know that they are.”

The highest-risk counties are now scattered across the state, including hotspots in western Indiana, some rural counties in the eastern part of the state and those around Evansville in the southwestern corner.

Indiana’s remaining 52 counties received yellow or blue ratings based on the number of new cases per 100,000 residents and the percentage of tests confirming COVID-19 infections.

“Seeing the map shift so dramatically should be a reason every Hoosier renews their commitment to stopping COVID in its track,” Weaver said.

The 1,484 COVID-19 hospitalizations as of Tuesday additionally put Indiana at its highest level since early May, the Health Department reported. Such hospitalizations have grown by more than 50% since Sept. 22 — the day before Holcomb announced the changes to state restrictions.

With twice as many Hoosiers hospitalized with COVID-19 than in July, Weaver and Holcomb said Wednesday that efforts to curb infections within nursing homes should help.

“Slowing the spread of this infection and sickness inside these facilities ... there’s a direct correlation between how that also impacts our hospitalization rates," Holcomb said. “If we can prevent infections in our nursing homes, we will protect our hospital capacity, and in turn our capacity to care for others, as well.”

State officials also added 15 more coronavirus deaths on Wednesday to raise the state’s death toll to 4,023, including confirmed and presumed coronavirus cases. That’s an increase of 187 deaths in the past week.

The Health Department’s daily update showed that Indiana’s seven-day rolling average of newly confirmed COVID-19 infections was nearly 1,900 as of Tuesday, an increase of 119% from a month earlier.




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