State: Decisions about vaccines, masks are up to school districts, businesses

As the number new COVID-19 cases surge in Indiana, state health officials say they have no plans to impose new restrictions on Hoosiers, such as wearing masks or mandating vaccines.

In a press conference Friday afternoon, the top officials from the Indiana Department of Health sounded frustrated with the low level of vaccinations here but said they will leave decisions about vaccinations and face-masking up to individuals, businesses and school districts.

“We have given Hoosiers the tools that they need, the information, the ability to get vaccinated,” said Dr. Kris Box, Indiana’s state health commissioner. “We have provided that over and over and over again. And so we do believe it comes down to some personal responsibility for Hoosiers across the state to make those decisions for themselves and in their own communities.”

Nevertheless, she raised the alarm about rising COVID-19 case numbers, positivity rates and hospitalizations, much of it due to a surge in the highly contagious delta variant.

She also pointed out that fewer than half of Hoosiers aged 12 and over have received even a single dose of vaccine and repeatedly urged people to get vaccinated. The vaccination rates are among the lowest in the Midwest.

“I know many Hoosiers have different beliefs about masks, the vaccine and the pandemic as a whole,” Box said. “What I hope is we all share a personal responsibility to do no harm to others. Until we increase our vaccination rates, and unless we use every tool available to us to stop the spread of disease, the virus will continue to have the advantage. It will continue to mutate, and we will be constantly playing whack-a-mole for the foreseeable future.”

She continued: “I personally do not want to play games with Hoosiers’ lives. It’s all up to the rest of you, and all of us, to stop this pandemic.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday recommended that even vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in parts of the U.S. where the coronavirus is surging.

The CDC also recommended indoor masks for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status.

Indiana health officials said they strongly urged school districts to follow the advice, but added they would not issue a statewide mandate.

“We don’t have very many students who are vaccinated,” Box said. “But we are really trying to allow—and have heard clearly from our local elected officials and from our schools—that they want to make these decisions locally. Now it’s important to them to be able to make the decisions, so we are giving strong recommendation, strong guidance, and giving the sciences behind it, and then allowing them to make that decision.”

The vaccination rate, especially among younger Hoosiers, continues to lag the nation. Only 34% of people aged 16 to 18 been vaccinated. About 20% of Hoosiers aged 12 to 15 year have been vaccinated.

Some businesses, including all major local hospital systems, have issued mandates that all employees get vaccinated. Box said the state has no power to institute a similar requirement on state employees or private citizens.

That’s because the Indiana General Assembly passed a law in April banning the state and local governments from issuing or requiring COVID-19 vaccine passports, showing proof of immunization status.

“We’re not allowed to have passports or any other way to verify that,” Box said. “So it’s kind of a moot point. And we have continued to take the stance that we are not planning to mandate a vaccine under Emergency Use Authorization” of the vaccines.

The Food and Drug Administration is now reviewing whether to upgrade the COVID-19 vaccines to standard approved. All three COVID-19 vaccines in use in the U.S. are being administered under emergency use authorization.

The state health department on Friday reported that 1,461 Hoosiers had tested positive for COVID-19, the highest number of daily new infections since 1,483 cases were reported on April 29.

The daily counts this week have all been above 1,000, after several weeks of reports in the triple digits.

The department also said in its latest daily count that six people in Indiana had died due to COVID. The state reported 15 deaths on Tuesday, 12 on Wednesday and six on Thursday. The state’s cumulative death toll is now 13,576.

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