COVID still a concern as holiday season nears

COVID-19 cases are up again as Thanksgiving draws near and that calls for caution regardless of the holiday, local public health experts say.

Vaccines, as well as more drugs and therapies to treat the virus, are more readily available this year, which means the situation is not as hopeless or as dire as this time in 2020. Still, local public health experts urge caution for those traveling, shopping in crowded stores or seeing unvaccinated family members.

About 21 months into the pandemic, COVID-19 is still spreading in Johnson County. Though there has been a vaccine available for nearly a year, only 86,135 county residents have been vaccinated of the 162,315 total population.

For each day last week, COVID-19 cases were over or near 100 per day in Johnson County, creating what looks to be another surge in cases in the county and around the state, according to data from the Indiana Department of Health.

New cases during this week so far have been lower, with 54 reported Monday and 34 reported Tuesday, but testing numbers remain high, with 175 rapid tests given on Monday alone, according to data from Johnson County Health Department.

A new surge is predictable because so many have relaxed precautions while remaining unvaccinated, said Dr. David Dunkle, president and CEO of Johnson Memorial Health.

“This is what the experts have predicted,” Dunkle said. “If we don’t reach herd immunity and people continue to not get vaccinated and not take precautions, this will continue. And if this continues we are going to continue to see waxing and waning of this infection that is now endemic.”

Though cases have been fewer this week compared to last week, the number of new cases has been higher consistently since the Delta variant increased the infection rate of the virus. For example, during the summer it was common to see 10 or fewer cases for a several-month stretch.

This year, experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say it is safe to go without a mask at a family gathering if you are vaccinated but recommend wearing a mask in areas with substantial to high community spread. By the CDC’s metrics, all Indiana counties have high or substantial community spread and should consider masking while indoors.

Regardless of community spread, the CDC recommends masking at gatherings for unvaccinated people and people with compromised immune systems.

To stay safe this holiday local health officials recommend inviting people for dinner who are inside your exposure circle, such as close family and friends. If inviting a large group of people who aren’t in close contact outside of the holidays, more precautions should be taken, said Betsy Swearingen, health department director.

“There is always going to be a risk in having large group gatherings,” Swearingen said. “Maintain what we’ve been talking about — social distancing, wash hands and get vaccinated — they know the things to do by now.”

For out-of-town or out-of-state guests, the CDC recommends getting a COVID test and avoiding crowded, indoor spaces before travel and taking precautions while traveling.

The CDC says people should also stay home if they are sick or if they have in close contact with someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Another recommendation from local health officials is to, if possible, get vaccinated before the holiday or as soon as possible after Thanksgiving.

Everyone over age 5 is eligible for COVID-19 vaccination and everyone over 18 is now eligible for a third dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine or a second dose of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine.

The precautions are especially important for families with mixed vaccination status and those who have family members with a weakened immune system. The CDC says those populations are most at-risk for serious complications if they are infected.

State data shows most who are hospitalized with COVID-19 or die from COVID-19 are unvaccinated. There are 66,428 documented breakthrough infections, 1,329 documented breakthrough hospitalizations and 714 breakthrough deaths in Indiana.

Johnson Memorial Health has not formally tracked breakthrough infections, hospitalizations or deaths, but anecdotally, those are rare, Dunkle said. Of the 10 patients being treated for COVID-19 at the hospital as of Monday, all were unvaccinated, he said.

“We don’t track it closely but just about everyone who is admitted with COVID is not vaccinated,” Dunkle said. “We are vaccinating people to avoid hospitalizations and deaths. We never said it would prevent you from getting COVID. The vaccine is incredibly effective.”