RICHMOND, Ind. — The Wayne County Health Board doesn’t agree with Gov. Eric Holcomb when it comes to easing COVID-19 restrictions.
Now is not the time to stop wearing masks, to discontinue social distancing or to halt limitations on gatherings, according to the local board. Holcomb has announced Indiana will reduce restrictions April 6, including making the mask mandate into an advisory; however, he left room for local government to continue stricter measures. That’s exactly what the health board recommends to county, city and town governments.
“I wouldn’t in any way go along with what the governor says. Stay with it,” said board member Jon Igelman, who made the motion that the board recommend following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
That motion passed 4-2 during Wednesday’s special board meeting. Members Bob Coddington and Peter Zaleski voted against it.
Paul Rider, president of the board, stressed the intent is for current mitigation measures to continue and that the health department would be available to consult with governing bodies as they consider what to do.
“I can’t see any reason for us to recommend a deviation,” Rider said prior to the vote.
The board ultimately decided its job was to base its recommendation on medical and public health viewpoints. Local government entities must now weigh that recommendation against all other factors when deciding whether to continue measures that are stricter than what Holcomb expresses.
Richmond Mayor Dave Snow attended the health board’s meeting to hear the members’ discussion. He said the next step is for him and his team to consider the recommendation.
“Our job now is to review the recommendation against the current guidelines in place and make some decisions,” he said.
He did not know the timeline for those decisions, saying ample time would be needed to review the situation.
The Wayne County Board of Commissioners next meets April 7 to discuss the recommendation. During their March 24 meeting, the commissioners decided mask mandates and other COVID-19 protections would remain in place inside county buildings at least until they met to consider a decision on April 7.
Wayne County has now had 6,789 laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to the Indiana State Department of Health’s update Wednesday. There have been 196 deaths of Wayne County residents to COVID-19 complications.
Wednesday’s update added 14 new cases to the county’s total and reported a seven-day positivity rate of 2.9%. The 14 cases are the most in a single day during March, topping 12 from March 22.
Christine Stinson, the executive director of the Wayne County Health Department, pointed out that new case totals took a nosedive as March began, then plateaued, but have again begun to climb. The positivity rate has also begun to rise.
She said the advantages now to the fall and winter spike in cases and positivity rate are that activities can again occur outside and that vaccinations have begun. About a quarter of Wayne County residents have been vaccinated, with 14,149 fully vaccinated and 4,293 receiving the first dose of a two-dose vaccination protocol, but that’s not nearly enough to use immunity as a protection, she said.
“We have a long way to go,” Stinson said.
She also expressed concern that now is not the time to ease mediation efforts because many residents are returning from spring break vacations and families are planning Easter gatherings.
During the meeting, the fight against COVID-19 was referred to multiple times as a race between vaccinations and the virus mutating. Rider said he seriously doubted herd immunity could ever be achieved through vaccinations. Indiana just Wednesday opened vaccinations to ages 16 and older, but no vaccine has yet been approved for children younger than 16.
Dr. David Jetmore, the county’s health officer, said vaccine trials for ages 5 to 12 have shown promise, but there is no timetable for when children might be cleared to receive vaccinations. He also noted that a year’s hindsight shows that when mediation efforts such as masking have been eased, the virus numbers grow.
Igelman stressed that vaccinations do not prevent a vaccinated person from having the virus; the vaccinations protect that person from being sick or dying. A vaccinated person with the virus could still transmit the virus to others. And, he said, if a virus is being transmitted, it will mutate.
“One of these days, it’s going to mutate into something really bad,” he said of COVID-19.
There also is no knowledge yet about how long the immunity provided by vaccination will last, according to Rider.
“I think it’s important to keep people from getting infected in the first place,” Jetmore said.
COVID-19 attacks multiple organs in the body, impacting lungs, heart, brain and kidneys, Jetmore said. People of all ages who survive COVID-19 can have lingering problems.
Board member Sabrina Pennington said COVID-19 continues to impact her life even after her recovery.
“It’s no joke,” Pennington said. “Maybe I didn’t die, but it’s changed my life in a lot of ways. We have to continue to be vigilant.”
Coddington wanted the board to make a when-then recommendation, telling citizens that when a certain standard is met, then an appropriate easing of restrictions would occur. He said government’s role should not be to protect citizens from COVID-19.
Coddington also said Wayne County should make its decision based solely on Wayne County’s COVID-19 situation, not other parts of Indiana or other states; however, Rider and Jetmore disagreed because Wayne County is not an island that can control its borders.
“We’re at the mercy of the people around us,” Rider said.
Jetmore noted that a large meeting in Boston, Mass., spread cases to a variety of locales. He also noted that Wayne County is impacted by the COVID-19 situation in surrounding counties, including in Ohio. Randolph and Franklin counties on Wednesday returned to the yellow advisory level in Indiana’s metric system because of rising positivity rates, while Wayne and other counties remained in the blue advisory level for low community spread.
Zaleski joined Coddington in voting against the board’s motion. He said he voted no because the board did not address the issue of policing mandates. The health department had previously been assigned to police mandates, and Zaleski said the department was thrown to the wolves without the tools and support necessary.
“I sure as heck don’t want to be in a policing role,” he said.
The board’s motion also expressed that it would consider its recommendation at each monthly board meeting. The next meeting is April 15.