Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett on Thursday announced that he intends to ask public health leaders in Marion County and its doughnut counties in the metropolitan area to meet to form a regional approach for dealing with coronavirus.
Currently, Marion County is the only one in the metro with any public-health restrictions in place. The state has been operating for weeks in Phase 5, which comes with no capacity limits for public spaces, despite a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases across the state.
Hogsett said Thursday he’s often asked when large companies plan to bring workers back to downtown Indianapolis but that leaders tell him they’re not just watching Marion County’s numbers. It suggests that a regional approach to curbing COVID-19 might be necessary.
“Now more than ever we must recognize that we have a regional economy in the Indianapolis metropolitan area,” he said. “As such the public health strategies that will lead us to defeat this virus and set us on a path to recovery by their very nature need to be regional as well.”
In Boone and Hendricks counties, for example, the number of cases per 100,000 people has doubled in the past couple of weeks, Dr. Virginia Caine, director of the Marion County Public Health Department, said.
Hogsett said he hopes by convening health leaders from counties surrounding Marion that they can begin working on “what I hope will result in more regional collaboration on policies and practices that acknowledge our foe in this fight does not recognize county lines.”
He said neither he nor Caine have spoken with leaders in those counties about collaborating but will be reaching out over the next few days and weeks.
“I think it’s pretty logical to assume that if we are working together, it will make us stronger,” he said. “And obviously a regional approach is particularly important when you look at the economic effects the pandemic has had.”
Asked by IBJ about the potential for regional collaboration as described by Hogsett, Tom Ryan, Boone County’s public health emergency preparedness coordinator, said the county already was involved in a regional approach.
There are 10 preparedness districts through the state, and District 5 (Central Indiana) already includes Marion and its donut counties, Ryan said. Officials from that district, as well as representatives from the state, have been meeting once a month since COVID started to do things like balance available PPE across communities.
Given the fact that those meetings are already happening, Ryan was a bit confused by the mayor’s announcement.
“Those meetings are our time to provide updates, see what’s going on—as far as the response—and to determine what needs and resources there are,” Ryan said. “I’m not sure exactly where the mayor is coming from, but as a district, we’re obviously going to work with our district partners to do everything we can to support the community.”
Dr. Charles Harris, Hamilton County’s health officer, said that a regional COVID plan would be a “good approach,” but that it should include elected officials from counties, cities, towns and schools “to be effective and accepted at all levels of government.”
“We look forward to working further with our partners in all areas,” he said.
Ashley Elrod, spokeswoman for the city of Fishers, said neither the city’s health department nor the mayor’s office had been contacted yet, “but we always appreciate the opportunity for regional collaboration.”
Caine said Thursday there will be no changes to the current public health orders in Marion County and she reiterated the importance of wearing masks, social distancing and avoiding large social gatherings, like weddings.
Bars and restaurants, museums, cultural sites, music venues, gyms and fitness centers and more remain limited to 50% capacity indoors.
Marion County’s positivity rate remains below 10% but is inching closer to the double-digit mark, which would require more restrictions.
“As it gets to double digits, that’s a major, major concern for us,” Caine said. “We’re hoping this positivity rate will very soon slow down and plateau, but it will all depend on consumer behavior. It all depends on all of us in our community.”
Caine and Hogsett also announced that the county will be working with the Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health to increase the number of asymptomatic people getting tests in order to better surveillance the community for the disease. Specific details about how that will work weren’t provided.