Mask mandate needs to stay locally

The facts don’t lie: masks have helped slow the spread of COVID-19.

Gov. Eric Holcomb can lift the statewide mask mandate this week, but local officials should keep rules for face coverings in place should the order expire on Saturday.

Since the state moved to stage 5 of Holcomb’s Back on Track Indiana plan on Sept. 26, Indiana has seen cases and hospitalizations surge statewide. Last week, the state set new records for cases in a week (just under 10,000 cases) and single day (1,937 on Oct. 9).

The Indiana State Department of Health reported 1,238 people hospitalized across the state on Monday, the highest since May 19 and up 507 over roughly the past month.

This week, the state is on track to break more records.

The per capita positive rate in Bartholomew County – the rolling seven-day average of the number of positive COVID-19 tests per 100,000 residents – moved into the “substantial spread” category for the first time in six weeks, with a rate of 11.3 on Sunday, up from 7.3 the previous Sunday. In the county, the number of hospitalizations has stayed in the single digits for almost two straight months, but is also increasing.

The local COVID-19 Community Task Force, which is made up of community members such as Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop, Columbus Regional Health President and CEO Jim Bickel, county health officer Dr. Brian Niedbalsk, and  several other local leaders, signed a joint letter to Holcomb on Oct. 6 advocating for the continued use of masks.

“We ask that the face covering requirement continue, under the supervision of state healthcare professionals, for as long as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) continue to recommend mask wearing as the single most effective way currently available to limit the spread of coronavirus,” the letter states.

Multiple task force members said they believed the mask mandate has been successful in keeping the numbers low for the county, which is why they’re advocating for the state to continue its current rules.

If Holcomb decides not to extend the mask mandate, local officials said they may revisit instituting a local mandate that was being considered before the governor issued his statewide order in July. The group absolutely should contemplate the move should the order end.

Bartholomew County isn’t in a bad spot yet, but masks — along with social distancing and frequent hand washing — have played a major role in the public’s health.

The task force has led the community on the COVID-19 fight thus far, and should continue to be trusted moving forward.