Menachemi and Halverson

Nir Menachemi, left, and Paul Halverson, both with the Indiana University Fairbanks School of Public Health, update their study on COVID-19's prevalence in Indiana. 

INDIANAPOLIS – In one final plea before the Thanksgiving holiday, state leaders and health experts begged Hoosiers to stay home and reduce an anticipated surge of cases amid record-breaking hospitalizations and overwhelmed hospitals.

“We’re worried about this holiday – I think all of us in public health in particular are worried about this holiday,” Paul Halverson, the dean of Indiana University’s Fairbanks School of Public Health, said.

Some Americans, apparently buoyed by the announcement of highly effective vaccine candidates, have decided to travel despite warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that doing so would increase the number of COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations.

Based on reported cases per 100,000 residents in Indiana’s counties, all 92 are “red,” indicating high community spread.

“I cannot repeat this enough: bringing together large groups of people from outside your immediate household puts everyone at risk for COVID-19 and our hospitals are being inundated with COVID patients,” Kris Box, the state health commissioner, said. “There is still time to make the hard choice today so that you can enjoy many more tomorrows with your loved ones.”

The state also offered an update on the Indiana University Fairbanks School of Public Health, which is studying the spread of COVID-19 and estimating infection rates statewide.

Nir Menachemi, a school chair and researcher, estimated that COVID-19 had a 10.6% prevalence in Indiana, with “worrisome” increases reported among older Hoosiers.

In order to reach herd immunity, where approximately 70% of the population has experienced the virus, at least 13,000 Hoosiers outside of nursing homes would die, Menachemi said.

Deaths outside of nursing homes make up less than half of all of Indiana’s deaths, around 45%, and 13,000 deaths would be over five times the 2,354 non-nursing home deaths Indiana currently reports.

Menachemi explained that nursing homes, a congregate living setting where cases and deaths multiply quickly among vulnerable Hoosiers, were excluded in the Fairbanks study because access to homes is limited in an attempt to limit the virus’ spread.

“Comparatively, that’s many times more deaths than have already occurred in Indiana,” Menachemi said. “Pushing to achieve herd immunity without a vaccine simply risks losing many lives in and outside of nursing homes.”

Nursing home residents, generally older and with more health complications, are the most vulnerable to virus and account for just 4% of cases but 55% of deaths.

“We have evidence to suggest that an increase in infections among younger Hoosiers quickly translate into more infections and thus more deaths among older Hoosiers,” Menachemi said. “This is exactly what is occurring right now… (with) the increased reported deaths and the strains on our hospitals.”

While the first round of vaccines could be distributed to health care workers and at-risk Hoosiers as early as next month, Box warned that most of the state wouldn’t get the vaccine until well into 2021.

“The vaccine is a critical tool in our efforts to resume what resembles a normal life,” Box said. “But, in the meantime, please stay the course: continue wearing your masks, practicing social distancing, washing your hands, staying home if you’re sick and getting tested.”

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