RACE AGAINST VARIANTS: Local health officials urge COVID-19 survivors to get vaccinated

Cummins employees check in at mobile COVID-19 vaccination clinic inside the Cummins Midrange Engine Plant in Columbus, Ind., Friday, April 9, 2021. The clinic was run by staff members of the Cummins LiveWell Center. Mike Wolanin | The Republic

Bartholomew County health officials are urging people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 even if they already had the viral infection, saying the vaccines offer the best chance for long-term protection and are key for reaching herd immunity before a mutation renders the vaccines ineffective.

Currently, health experts do not know how long a past COVID-19 infection will protect people from getting sick again and warn that — although rare so far — it is possible to be infected with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 again.

Earlier this week, Columbus Regional Health confirmed at least one case of COVID-19 reinfection within the hospital system, meaning that the individual contracted COVID-19, recovered and months later fell ill and tested positive again.

“We just don’t know how long immunity from the infection lasts,” said Dr. Slade Crowder, CRH vice president of physician enterprise operations. “Candidly, we don’t know how long the protection from the vaccine lasts either. But we know that being vaccinated is the best chance to have the best protection. So we encourage people who had (COVID-19) to still get vaccinated so that we are more confident that they’ll have long-term protection.”

The statements from CRH officials come as health officials across the country say they’re in a race to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible as COVID-19 variants spread, mask and distancing rules are relaxed, and Americans crave a return to normalcy, The Associated Press reported.

On Wednesday, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said a highly contagious and potentially deadlier coronavirus variant first detected in the United Kingdom is now the most common source of new infections in the U.S.

The U.K. variant, known as variant B.1.1.7, has been detected in all 50 states and the District of Columbia as of Thursday, including 250 confirmed cases in Indiana, CDC officials said.

Some neighboring states have seen far more cases of the U.K. variant so far, including 2,262 cases in Michigan, 550 in Illinois and 527 in Ohio, federal records show.

So far, it appears the shots provide some protection from the most worrisome variants, according to wire reports.

However, the variants have underscored the importance of vaccinating people as quickly as possible. Slowing transmission is critical since viruses can mutate when they infect people and local health officials worry about further mutations, particularly as COVID-19 transmission remains high in much of the country, including Indiana.

This week, Bartholomew County was placed in “yellow status” on the state’s COVID-19 map after being in “blue status,” the lowest advisory category. Jackson County was placed in “orange status.”

Locally, transmission is largely being driven by younger residents, who have not yet been vaccinated at the same level as older age groups, Indiana State Department of Health officials said.

Since March 1, a total of 70 Bartholomew County residents from infants to age 19 have tested positive for COVID-19 — more than all cases detected in residents age 50 and up, according to state figures.

Overall, Bartholomew County residents under 40 have accounted for nearly 65% of confirmed cases since March 1, compared to 45% over the course of the pandemic.

As of Thursday morning, 290 Bartholomew county residents age 16 to 19 had received their first COVID-19 vaccine dose and 75 were fully vaccinated, though that age group didn’t become eligible for shots until March 31.

In total, 25,227 Bartholomew County residents had received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of Thursday morning, or just under 1 in 3 residents, according to state records.

Additionally, 16,697 Bartholomew County residents were considered fully vaccinated, or nearly 1 in 5 residents. That includes 709 people who had received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

That is nowhere near achieving herd immunity, according to public health experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, who estimate that 70% to 85% of the U.S. population needs to get vaccinated to reach herd immunity.

However, getting vaccinated is not a carte blanche to return to pre-pandemic life, local health officials said.

Currently, fully vaccinated people can gather indoors without physical distancing or wearing masks with other people who are fully vaccinated and unvaccinated people from one other household, unless any of those people or anyone they live with has an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, said Dr. Tom Sonderman, vice president and chief operations officer, citing CDC guidelines.

“Until more is known, fully vaccinated people should continue to wear masks and stay 6 feet apart from other people in other settings, like when they are in public or visiting with unvaccinated people from multiple households,” Sonderman said.

Additionally, while the vaccines offer strong protection, they aren’t perfect, said Dr. Brian Niedbalski, Bartholomew County health officer.

“People need to understand that the vaccine is not foolproof,” Niedbalski said. “There is still a chance of getting COVID after vaccination. Vaccinated individuals could be asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19, and potentially pass it to others. For now, wearing masks is still recommended when out in public places where physical distancing can’t be achieved. I know that many have grown tired of wearing masks, but as other restrictions are starting to be lifted, it’s a small sacrifice to make.”

Now that anyone age 16 and up is eligible for COVID-19 vaccines in Indiana, local health officials worry that younger people who may be at a lower risk of severe illness may opt not to get vaccinated and continue spreading the virus.

That in turn, health officials say, could increase the likelihood that the virus mutates in such a way that it is resistant to the vaccines.

“One of my fears is that uncontrolled spread amongst younger people can sort of be a breeding ground for (the virus) to then mutate and get us back into a second wave after it mutates significantly,” Crowder said. “…It’s more than just stopping the hospitalizations and deaths. We have to get enough people immunized for that herd immunity that the virus quits circulating, and we really have to minimize the circulation of the virus so that it can’t continue to mutate and change and possibly rear back up.”

“I feel like we’re sort of in a race to get more people fully vaccinated before there’s some mutation that really causes some problems,” Crowder said.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Hoosiers age 16 and older, along with healthcare workers, long-term care residents, teachers and first responders are now eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. To schedule, visit https://ourshot.in.gov or call 211.