INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana's crowd size limits will be relaxed starting next week following recent improvements in the statewide COVID-19 infection and hospitalization rates, the governor announced Wednesday.
State health officials, however, are not expanding COVID-19 vaccine availability to those younger than 70 because of limited dose availability, and will continue with a plan to expand shot eligibility based on age rather than moving up teachers and other essential workers as other states have done.
The new rules will allow gatherings at up to 25% capacity at venues in counties with the two highest risk levels of coronavirus spread on the state's four-level rating system, Gov. Eric Holcomb said. The revised rules starting Monday under Holcomb's new executive order will replace the current 25-person crowd limit for the highest-risk counties that has been in place since mid-November.
Holcomb said residents and businesses must still follow precautions including mask wearing and distancing to stem the virus spread.
"We can manage our way through this," Holcomb said. "We know what works, but it is a constant balance of our lives and our livelihoods."
All 92 Indiana counties remain in the highest restriction categories according to the state Department of Health's coronavirus risk tracking map. But that number could drop in coming weeks as Wednesday's updated map labels five of Indiana's 92 counties in the most dangerous red category, down from 34 counties last week and 73 two weeks ago. A county can move to a lower-risk rating after two weeks of improving per capita numbers of new infections and percentage of tests confirming those infections.
The health department has added 316 coronavirus deaths in the past week to the state's pandemic toll, which has reached nearly 9,850 fatalities including confirmed and presumed COVID-19 cases.
The state's seven-day rolling average of COVID-19 deaths has declined to less than 50 per day after peaking at 86 a day in mid-December. That average was about 10 deaths a day before a steep increase in new infections, hospitalizations and deaths began in September.
State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box said counties must report at least two weeks of lower risk levels before moving to categories where crowd capacities of 50% or 100% will be allowed.
"It's not like we opened it up to everything, no matter what the color (risk rating) and the community spread was within your county," Box said.
Many other states are also lifting coronavirus restrictions even as health experts have warned that the more contagious and possibly more lethal variant sweeping Britain will probably become the dominant source of infection in the U.S. by March. It has been reported in more than 20 states, including Indiana.
State health officials reported Wednesday that about 477,000 people have now received at least their first dose of the two-shot vaccines, and some 200,000 more have appointments scheduled. Those figures put more than half of Indiana's residents ages 70 and older and 60% of health care workers at least on their way to being vaccinated.
Officials expect to extend vaccine eligibility to those ages 65-69 in the coming weeks but gave no timeline for offering shots to teachers as many other states have.
Dr. Lindsay Weaver, the state health department's chief medical officer, said those ages 60 and older represent 93% of Indiana's COVID-19 deaths and 64% of hospitalizations, so vaccinating those people will have the biggest impact.
Indiana's weekly vaccine distribution from the federal government has grown by some 13,000 doses to about 90,000, Weaver said. But even with the additional doses, it will take significant time to vaccinate the 750,000 residents between ages 60 and 69, she said.
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