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Apr. 2—Howard County will not implement its own mask mandate or capacity restrictions, county officials announced Friday afternoon.
The decision directly mirrors Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb's executive order late last month in which he said the statewide mask mandate and COVID-19-related restrictions on businesses would end April 6.
The same will be true for Howard County. Starting April 6:
* Face coverings will be advised but not mandated. However, face coverings will remain mandatory in all county and city buildings and facilities and in all vaccination and COVID-19 testing sites until further notice. K-12 schools will continue under current face covering requirements through the remainder of the 2020-21 school year.
* As always, local governments, businesses and other entities may impose more stringent guidelines, such as choosing to keep mask wearing mandatory in their facilities.
* Customers in restaurants, bars and nightclubs will no longer be required to be seated. Six feet of spacing between tables and other seating will still be recommended, as is spacing between non-household parties.
Notably, the commissioners did extend the county's emergency declaration through April 30, allowing the board to impose any restrictions or reimpose the mask mandate should they decide it's needed.
At the time of his announcement last month, Holcomb said declining hospitalizations, declining reported positive cases and increasing vaccination efforts were the main reasons for dropping the mandate.
Commission President Paul Wyman cited similar reasons for the county following the governor's order in a brief interview with the Tribune on Friday.
"Howard County has always been at the forefront of this pandemic, and when we look at our numbers and how we're doing, we tend to trend as good as the rest of the state at this time," he said. "We feel comfortable making these adjustments. ... We've seen significant improvement in test numbers, significant improvement in hospitalizations and we have a tremendous amount of vaccination being distributed."
Dr. Emily Backer, the county health officer, said she agreed with the commissioners' decision, but said she was "surprised and disappointed" in Holcomb's decision to end the statewide mask mandate when he did and that she believes it put local governments in a situation where they had little choice but to follow his order.
"It's kind of crazy for the counties to do it differently (than the state)," she told the Tribune. "So many people work in one county and live in another county. To try and do a mask mandate in one county and not another just doesn't make sense. ... I think once the governor took it off, we said 'Ok, we're just going to follow suit' because that's what people are going to listen to."
Both Wyman and Backer still recommend people wear masks, avoid large crowds and stay socially distant.
"The virus is not over," Wyman said. "There's still a lot of work to do, but we've made such great progress to get to the other side. The vaccinations are a huge part of this, everyone working together is a huge part of this and respecting each other as we go forward is a huge part of this."
By the numbers
While both local and statewide reported positive cases, deaths and hospitalizations are lower than they were at their peak in the winter when local officials say hospital ICU beds were at capacity, all those metrics are either beginning to creep back up or are at levels seen last summer and fall before the winter surge.
Howard County's seven-day moving average for positive COVID-19 cases is 16, which is slightly more than double what it was at the beginning of March when the county's seven-day moving average was six.
Hospitalizations and ICU admissions were slightly up for the week of March 29 through April 2 compared to last, with eight admitted to the hospital, 16 to the emergency room and two to the ICU for COVID this week, according to the Regenstrief Institute. All of those numbers were slight increases compared to the week prior.
Indiana's District 6, which includes Howard County and other counties in east central Indiana, has 59 total people in the hospital for COVID-19 as of Thursday. That's down from the district's peak of 365 early last December and roughly where the district was in June and July.
Howard County's metrics are largely in tune with what is happening statewide and across the country as multiple states are reporting increases in positive cases and hospitalizations.
That said, the majority of those reported positive cases statewide are those aged 20-49, who tend to be healthier and less likely to be hospitalized or die from the virus should they be infected.
According to the state's COVID Data Hub, cases are increasing in the age groups of 20 to 49 years old where vaccination rates remains fairly low — less than 20% for those 20 to 39 and just slightly above 20% for those 40 to 49 years old.
According to that same data, reported positive cases in the age groups where more than 60% of the population is either partially or fully vaccinated — those 60 and older — have dropped considerably and have remained flat.
According to Backer, it's that vaccines that work, and now it's become a race between the vaccination effort and the virus.
"I think the vaccine effort has been going really well," Backer said. "More and more people are becoming more accepting to it. ... The key is we need at least 80%, if not 90%, of people vaccinated to reach herd immunity. That's when we should feel safer."
Vaccination efforts in the state and county are increasing and are expected to continue in that trajectory moving forward as vaccine supply increases. Notably, the state opened vaccination to those 16 years old and older on Wednesday because of expected increase in vaccine supply.
According to the Indiana Department of Health, 12,454 residents of Howard County — 15% of the county's population — are fully vaccinated as of Thursday. Another 7,597 have received their first dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines and are awaiting their second dose.
Notably, the state has been averaging more than 25,000 vaccinations a day for the last week, with 26.4% of state residents of all ages either partially or fully vaccinated.
At the current rate, the state will reach herd immunity on Aug. 19, according to Micah Pollack, an associate professor of economics at Indiana University Northwest, who has been charting the state's COVID cases and vaccination efforts.
Tyler Juranovich can be reached at 765-454-8577, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @tylerjuranovich