First published in TheStatehouseFile.com Oct. 21, 2020
State health officials are expanding resources available to long-term care facilities because of a rise in cases and deaths from COVID-19, Gov. Eric Holcomb announced at his weekly virtual press briefing Wednesday.
Dr. Lindsay Weaver, the state health department’s chief medical officer, said officials are launching a five-point plan that will supplement staff, provide personal protective equipment, reinforce infection control education and reduce ongoing admissions to long-term care facilities.
“We are now experiencing a surge in COVID in our long-term care facilities, which is why we are taking the additional steps to protect our most vulnerable Hoosiers,” Weaver said. “More than 2,200 long-term care residents have died of COVID-19, accounting for 58% of the state’s deaths.”
The surge in cases and deaths at Indiana’s nursing homes comes as COVID-19 continues to rapidly spread across the state.
On Wednesday, there were 1,766 new cases and 15 new deaths in Indiana from COVID-19. A total of 152,396 Hoosiers have caught the virus and 3,790 have died since March. The numbers from the past week are the highest since the pandemic began. The rising numbers are reflected in the ISDH map, which shows one third of Indiana’s counties in orange and four in red.
To help overworked nursing home staff, Holcomb has deployed the Indiana National Guard to assist with testing and reporting at facilities beginning Nov. 1. They will also be taught how to screen employees for COVID-19, as well help with simple infection control practices.
Indiana’s healthcare reserve workforce will also support long-term care facilities by filling open positions at the facilities or by visiting facilities on behalf of the health department three times a week. Eleven facilities have requested staff assistance this week, Weaver said.
Two million N95 masks are being sent to long term care facilities, as well as 400,000 face shields and 680,000 gowns. This is the largest distribution of PPE by the state, Weaver said.
To help lower the number of senior citizens in long-term care facilities, a program is being piloted by healthcare providers across the state that allows Medicaid eligible patients to be discharged home and access home service. In the first week of the program, 20 Hoosiers in long-term care facilities have been able to return home.
Holcomb was questioned repeatedly about the enforcement of the mask mandate and Stage 5 and reiterated that small gatherings are often where people are likely to let their guard down. He stressed that Hoosiers need to continue social distancing, wearing masks and practicing proper hygiene.
“In Stage 5, where we currently reside, we know how to fight back,” Holcomb said.
Weaver subbed for Dr. Kristina Box, the state’s health commissioner, at the press conference because Box is still in quarantine following last week’s announcement that she has tested positive for COVID-19. Box, over a phone call, said she had developed symptoms like a cough and a runny nose, but that she and her family are doing well.
Box also disputed claims that her infection was proof that the risk mitigation strategies are ineffective. Donald Rainwater, the Libertarian candidate for governor who opposes the mask mandate, suggested her infection was proof that masks don’t work.
She said she had been around co-workers and her dentist but always wore a mask and maintained a social distance but had let her guard down around her family, resulting in an infection from her grandson.
“I think my case is actually a true testament to the fact that, with all of my exposure at work for these past eight months — and even in that 48 hours before I got sick —that social distancing and wearing my mask did make a difference,” Box said.
Holcomb, at the press conference, reinforced his commitment to maintaining the mask mandate but without a penalty for violations. He has argued that the virus has been spreading in smaller gatherings when people let their guard down.
“I’d love to get to the day when we don’t have to wear masks,” Holcomb said. “That’s in part going to be up to how we control the spread, in part with the therapeutics and vaccine. But we’re going with it for the foreseeable future now because it works and we don’t have therapeutics and a vaccine, and we’re not seeing the spread rate go down or taper off.”
The health department has begun developing plans for how to distribute a vaccine when one becomes available, Weaver said. Limited supplies maybe available by the end of the year to be distributed first to healthcare workers.
Taylor Wooten is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.