Dr. Richard Feldman: End of Indiana’s COVID-19 restrictions was premature

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DEBATE Q
Is it the right time to lift the mask mandate?

Dr. Richard FeldmanEric Holcomb is a Republican governor in a conservative Republican state never known for its public-health performance on most any parameter.

I have been critical of some aspects of his COVID-19 emergency orders, including his non-punitive mask mandate. Nevertheless, considering his situation, I believe he has done a reasonable and thoughtful job of balancing the public’s health and supporting the economy over the past horrible year of illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths.

With that said, Holcomb’s recent rescinding of the state’s mask mandate, capacity and social-distancing restrictions was disappointing. I anticipated that he would announce some loosening of restrictions but not an almost total withdrawal of state-level mitigation requirements.

His decision was premature and not based on data and science—supposedly the basis of the state’s way forward. Simply, we are not ready.

This was a political decision. The governor is in a tough situation with continuing pressure from the right wing of his party to eliminate mitigation requirements.

Republican lawmakers are threatening a resolution to halt his current executive orders and introducing legislation to limit the governor’s future emergency powers by convening the Legislature.

Not a good idea. The General Assembly couldn’t even agree on a mask mandate for legislators this session.

The timing is not good. There is a false sense of security from experiencing a dramatic drop in daily COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, and a very low case-positivity rate of 3.7%. But 1,000 cases daily is still too high, higher than before the huge surge that peaked in December. Case numbers and positivity rates here and nationally are rising again, ticking up after a plateau.

And with many states totally reopening their economies, the more virulent United Kingdom variant circulating widely, crowded spring break gatherings, and locally with the NCAA Tournament, we can only anticipate a virus resurgence.

When we relax mitigation efforts, 2020 taught us, the virus surges.

Indiana can be proud of its immunization program, one of the most efficient and effective in the country. But still, only 2.8 million doses have been administered, and only 20% of the adult population has been fully immunized.

We’re far from the 80% required for herd immunity. And unfortunately, vaccine refusal is rampant.

We expect the arrival of other, more infectious and deadly variants. The South African and Brazilian variants have the enormous potential for drastic reductions in vaccine efficacy.

The messages from the governor are confusing to the public: The responsible thing to do is to continue to wear a mask, social distance, sanitize and avoid crowds. But the elimination of restrictions implies that the pandemic is all but over and it’s safe to reengage normally.

He is relying on the conservative concept of “personal responsibility” as an answer to a public-health crisis. Personal responsibility has never been an effective public-health strategy. How many photos of mask-less crowds have we seen?

The governor has shifted the responsibility for the COVID-19 response to local governments and to businesses to maintain restrictions without the cover of statewide regulations.

Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett will continue with the present restrictions, but I suspect that most localities will not impose any new regulations.

With vaccinations progressing, in just a few more months, we could be in a very different, safer place. But now our state is open. Get ready for a setback.•

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Feldman is a family physician, author, lecturer and former Indiana State Department of Health commissioner for Gov. Frank O’Bannon. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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6 thoughts on “Dr. Richard Feldman: End of Indiana’s COVID-19 restrictions was premature

  1. In 13 months: U.S.: 31 million cases; 565,000 deaths. In Indiana 707,000 cases, 13,200 deaths. On a personal note, a friend died a few months ago from Covid at age 64… he too believed it “all to be a bunch of B.S.” His family no longer does. The only thing worse than Covid is the ignorance and political pandering and games being played by all side that have accompanied it. See Michigan outbreak for the mutation of the virus coming here soon.

  2. As a physician who has been involved from the start in dealing with the pandemic, I agree fully with Dr Feldman. Removing mask mandates and abandoning social distancing and limits on gatherings is foolish until a significantly larger proportion of our population has been vaccinated. To date we are at about 20% of the adult population of Indiana being fully immunized. Add to that about 25% of the population has likely had COVID-19. Together that still leaves more than half of our population susceptible, and the new variants are both more contagious and likely more deadly. Even though the mask mandate was really unenforceable it did give the message that we should continue to wear masks. Removing it implies that we are safe to simply go back to pre-pandemic normal. We are not.

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