Health

Two Southern Indiana counties have renewed their public health restrictions as the battle against COVID-19 continues.

Last week, Floyd County Health Officer Dr. Tom Harris extended the local mask mandate for at least another six weeks, noting that more time may be added. Gov. Eric Holcomb’s statewide mask mandate is currently issued on a month-by-month basis.

“We know now that it’s going to take a while for the state to disseminate enough vaccines so we get close to 50% of the population, which is the minimum threshold for herd immunity,” Harris said. “So, it makes sense to go ahead and just remove the uncertainty and extend it for another six weeks. So, that was done, and then the plan would probably be to extend it for another six weeks after that.”

In Clark County, restaurants and bars must abide by capacities limits and early closures for at least another two weeks. Restaurants are limited to 75%, and bars must close at 10 p.m.

Clark County Health Officer Eric Yazel said in a Facebook post, “No one in this county wants a return to normalcy more than I do.  Reality is, our numbers stink right now.” The county’s unique positivity rate has been on an incline in recent weeks and now sits at about 28%.

“Those are some of the highest we have seen during the whole pandemic,” Yazel said in the post. “And our contact tracing points towards certain sources of infection, hence the guidelines. Our restaurant and bar partners have worked extremely hard to create a safe environment for you. We are simply trying to hold up our end of the bargain by making the least restrictive recommendations we can while keeping the public safe. It’s not perfect, but we are trying to mitigate as much as possible until we can get the vaccine out there to everyone.”

But in Floyd County, Harris let those same restaurant and bar guidelines expire late last month. He said the state’s guidelines, which mandate social distancing and seated service, will continue to help limit spread, even without capacity limits.

Harris said contact tracing data from recent weeks showed the virus was spreading more at small, private gatherings, rather than in public settings. Because of that, he didn’t believe it was necessary to continue restrictions on bars and restaurants.

“It didn’t make sense to continue to have the economic impact there without a lot of benefit,” Harris said. “Same thing with the restaurants… There’s no longer any fixed percentage of capacity. Realistically,  though, with maintaining social distancing and the other measures, most of them still aren’t going to be at 100%.”

School systems in both counties will have some sort of in-person component for the upcoming semester, which starts this week for the counties’ largest school systems. New Albany-Floyd County Schools [NAFCS] moved to a fully virtual model in November.

Virtual learning at NAFCS will continue for the first week of classes, which starts Tuesday. But the following week, a hybrid model will be implemented.

Yazel said in his Facebook post that he expects some of last semester’s problems to linger when Clark County’s school systems return to the classroom.

“Our local schools did an amazing job [in the] first semester with their policies and procedures to prevent in-school spread,” he said. “The rates were actually significantly less than community spread.  Where we had difficulty is maintaining teacher and support staff availability between illness and quarantines. I do anticipate some of that to continue during the first few weeks of the semester. So please bear with your school administrators.”

Yazel encouraged high-risk teachers and support staff to get vaccinated as soon as they can. Clark and Floyd counties started administering vaccines in December.

More than 3,000 tier-1a individuals have been vaccinated at Baptist Health Floyd, the county’s only hospital. Despite delays in getting vaccines to nursing homes, Harris said that process is picking up, as well. Tier 1b vaccinations are expected to begin next week, allowing more health care workers and at-risk individuals to get the shot.

Clark County had 110 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, with a 7-day moving average of 117. There were 46 new cases in Floyd County, which has a moving average of 60. Both counties are in Indiana’s orange category, indicating high community spread.

John Boyle covers southern Indiana communities and health for WFPL News. He is a Report for America Corps member.