NEEDING A BOOST: Fewer than half of eligible county residents have obtained booster

Health care officials are concerned that Bartholomew County is lagging behind in residents getting booster shots of the COVID-19 vaccine, which could provide protection against the newest variant, omicron. The Republic file photo

Local health officials are concerned that thousands of Bartholomew County residents who are eligible for a COVID-19 booster shot have yet to get one and tens of thousands are not vaccinated at all as omicron caseloads continue to rise alarmingly fast.

Just 48.6% of the 38,459 vaccinated Bartholomew County residents who meet federal criteria for a booster shot had gotten one as of this past Wednesday, the most recent data available from the Indiana Department of Health.

Overall, just under 23% of Bartholomew County’s total population has what public health experts have said are key to fighting the omicron variant, which officials fear could lead to more re-infections among those who have survived the virus, as well as more so-called “breakthrough” infections among the vaccinated.

And that doesn’t count the nearly 33,880 Bartholomew County residents who have not yet gotten vaccinated, according to state figures.

Currently, anyone ages 16 and up who received their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines six months ago, as well as anyone who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine two months ago, are eligible for boosters, according to CDC recommendations.

“It is somewhat concerning that we are not at a higher percentage,” said Bartholomew County Health Officer Dr. Brian Niedbalski. “I’m hoping that after the hustle and bustle of the holidays, people will make it more of a priority.”

The concerns come as hospitals across the state including Columbus Regional Hospital brace for a potential wave of omicron infections on top of a surge that has already strained resources.

CRH officials are anticipating another spike in patients due to holiday gatherings and the fast-spreading omicron variant, which was confirmed to be spreading in Indiana earlier this month.

CRH officials said last week they had already started prioritizing severely ill patients and has delayed some surgeries as the hospital contends with a surge in admissions due to COVID-19 and other medical conditions.

The surge drove the hospital’s inpatient head count earlier this month to OVERSET FOLLOWS:the highest in the hospital’s 104-year history.

Since then, the total inpatient census has declined somewhat, though officials still characterized the situation at the hospital last week as “very severe.”

“The omicron variant is here and is spreading at a faster rate than any previous COVID strain,” Niedbalski said. “We are seeing it lead to more hospitalizations in children on the East Coast. COVID hospitalizations are still at high levels overall. Health care continues to be extremely concerned about a surge upon our current situation due to omicron.”

The warnings from local health officials also come just days after Bartholomew County reached another grim milestone in the pandemic 200 deaths from the virus and demand for vaccines continues to sputter.

Just over one year since the first COVID-19 vaccines became available in Bartholomew County, the initial excitement and relief of the medical community has since faded amid lagging vaccination rates.

Local health officials said higher vaccination rates in the Columbus area would have helped soften the surge in hospitalizations that has been overwhelming hospital staff as of late.

About 80% of people hospitalized with COVID-19 at CRH have been unvaccinated, hospital officials said last week. That suggests that hospitalizations could have been hovering somewhere between nine to 12 instead of 43 to 58 heading into a critical moment of the pandemic.

“I would have hoped the vaccine would have had better adoption and would have prevented what we’re seeing right now. I think it could if it would have been (more) broadly accepted,” said Dr. Slade Crowder, CRH vice president of physician enterprise operations and associate chief medical officer.

In the meantime, vaccination rates continue at much lower levels compared to this past spring.

A total of 413 Bartholomew County residents received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine the week ending Dec. 18, the latest full week of data available Monday morning from the Indiana Department of Health.

By comparison, more local residents were getting vaccinated per day at times this past spring, including 934 people on April 10.

Though much remains unknown about the omicron variant including the extent to which it evades protection from vaccines and prior infections early studies suggest the vaccinated may need a booster shot for the best chance at preventing omicron infection, The Associated Press reported.

Health experts say anyone who’s survived a bout of COVID-19 still should get vaccinated, because the combination generally offers stronger protection, according to wire reports.

“Vaccination is still our best protection against severe disease, hospitalizations and death,” Niedbalski said. “I encourage everyone to get their boosters when they qualify. Parents should strongly consider getting their children vaccinated if they are in the appropriate age group.”