State makes mask recommendations


The Indiana State Department of Health is following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's strong recommendations made recently about people wearing masks.

“This week, the CDC issued new guidance recommending that everyone aged two and older wear a mask in public indoor settings. In areas with substantial or high transmission of COVID-19, even if they're fully vaccinated, the Indiana Department of Health is strongly urging Hoosiers to follow this guidance,” Indiana State Health Commissioner Dr. Kris Box said at a Friday afternoon press conference. “This also applies to students, staff and teachers in our K through 12 schools regardless of the level of community spread.”

Wearing masks has always been the recommendation. But when the state mandate was lifted, people became more relaxed and not as diligent with wearing masks, Dubois County Health Department Administrator Shawn Werner explained.

“Now that you're seeing this increased transmission and spike in cases, I think they're trying to message that more to us,” he said, “especially if you're indoors, in confined spaces where you know the transmission risk is higher.”

The way to determine that is if you can safely social distance in a location.

“Basically, if you can't social distance, there’s a higher transmission risk,” Werner said. “So if you can't sit 6 feet apart, without wearing a mask, then it’s definitely a higher transmission risk.”

Both Box and the state's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Lindsay Weaver stressed on Friday that these are strong recommendations, not mandates. The state is looking for the people and local officials to make those kinds of decisions for their communities.

“We have heard clearly from our local elected officials and from our schools that they want to make these decisions locally,” Box said, “that it's important to them to be able to make the decisions. And so we are giving strong recommendations, strong guidance and giving the science behind those strong recommendations and guidance, and then allowing them to make that decision.”

Local officials in Dubois County tend to work together to make sure any determinations or changes concerning the virus are consistent throughout the county. But since the state's announcement was Friday afternoon, there hadn’t been time yet to make any decisions.

“We will be checking with the county health department and determine if we need to pull everybody together and discuss the direction here locally; so I think that we would be hearing from (the health department),” Jasper Mayor Dean Vonderheide said. “I would assume that on Monday, we’d probably huddle. We try to be consistent across the county.”

School districts have already laid out their plans for students returning to school. Whether any of this changes is not yet known; the superintendents were out of the office or at meetings Friday afternoon.

State health officials added that the CDC recommends that a person who has any close contacts to a positive case be tested three to five days after the exposure, even if they are fully vaccinated. Also, they should wear a mask until the test comes back negative.

“If you are a close contact, get tested, even if you're fully vaccinated, even if you're asymptomatic,” Box said. “If you become symptomatic, even if you're fully vaccinated, get tested and wear a mask until you're symptom free and you have a negative test result.”

The main reason state and federal health officials are making the recommendations is that the virus has mutated into several different variants.

“A year ago, we were dealing with one strain of the virus that caused COVID-19. Today we're battling multiple variants, but the biggest threat is from the Delta variant, which is fueling our current increase in cases,” Box said. “This variant, which was first identified in India, spreads more than twice as easily from one person to another, compared with other strains.

“The CDC has compared the infectivity of the Delta variant to that of the chickenpox and measles,” she said, “which means that each infected person can infect an average of eight or nine other people.”

The method of battling the virus has improved from last year.

“A year ago, we had very limited tools at our disposal to protect ourselves and others from COVID-19. Masks, social distancing and hand washing was really the only things in our arsenal,” Box said. “Today, we have the most powerful tool available to prevent disease in the form of three highly effective vaccines. But almost half of eligible Hoosiers still have not received a single dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.”

Indiana is now averaging 900 cases per day, which is the level the state was at this time last year, Box reported. A year ago today, the state’s positivity rate was 6.6%; now it is 6.8%, which is much higher than last month’s rate of just over 2%. The number of new cases per week is 4,000 to 6,000 for July, more than June’s counts of below 2,000 cases a week, Box said.

Box and Weaver hope that more will get the vaccine, especially as they start to see younger people contracting the virus.

“People are seeing more younger people because those are the individuals that are not vaccinated. They see more younger people in the hospital,” Box said. “That starts to impact people, when they see a 30-year-old, a 40-year-old, a child that's there.

“I truly believe we're seeing an increase in vaccine rates,” she continued. “I truly believe this will continue. But I can't speak for everyone's sense of personal responsibility.”

People can still get the vaccine locally. The Dubois County Health Department asks that they schedule an appointment for the Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines by calling 812-481-7056. For the Moderna vaccine, go online to to schedule an appointment.

The online scheduling allows people to sign up for the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine, but that specification is not sent to the health department, Werner said. If the department does not know which vaccine a person is coming in for, workers may not have the right dose ready. That means the person would have to make another appointment to get the right vaccine, which can be an inconvenience for the person.

So the health department is asking that people looking to get the Pfizer vaccine call the health department instead.

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