State officials warn of rising cases, doubt herd immunity

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State officials confirmed Indiana COVID-19 cases are rising during a press briefing July 7.

Indiana State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box said hospitalized COVID-19 cases in the state increased from 595 on June 26 to 667 on July 7. The state’s 7-day average positivity rate also rose from a low of 4.1 percent as of June 18 to a high of 5.9 percent as of July 4. The state had a single day high of positivity rate of 6.4 percent July 4.

Box said the state expected the number of total cases to increase as more Indiana residents were tested, but she also said she hoped that would coincide with a decrease in the positivity rate of COVID-19 cases, which, after mid June, has also increased.

“You really want to be testing so many people that your positivity rate is down below five percent,” Box said. “That’s what we’d like to see. … Now we’ve seen that creep up as we’ve seen it in some pockets across the state. And that could be a sign we are seeing more actual outbreaks, more actual cases – not just related to the number of people we are testing.”

But data analyzed by Regenstrief Institute, a research organization, indicated the number of COVID-19 cases that were hospitalized has stayed steady, Box said. The institute analyzed data from 47,329 distinct COVID-19 positive tests since March 1 logged by ISDH’s databases and Indiana Network for Patient Care-Research.

Of the cases analyzed, 11,727 (25 percent) positive patients visited an emergency department, 7,333 (16 percent) have been hospitalized and 1,540 (3 percent) have been admitted to an intensive care unit.

The institute reported 1,540 (21 percent) of the 7,333 hospitalized patients have been admitted to an intensive care unit – 3 percent of the 47,329 total cases analyzed. To date, 5,434 (74 percent) of 7,333 hospitalized patients have been discharged from a hospital. The institute estimated 7 percent of the patients are still hospitalized, and 19 percent of known COVID-19 hospitalized patients have died. Overall, the institute estimated 78 percent of patients have recovered.

The state has continued to track the data of its four guiding principles: COVID-19 hospitalization rates, ICU bed and ventilator capacity, testing capacity and the ability to contact trace all positive COVID-19 cases. Box said the rising number of hospitalized patients confirmed the state’s decision to delay its move to Stage 5 of its reopening plan, which would have lifted capacity restrictions for most businesses and events, assuming they take proper measures to socially distance patrons and promote safe sanitization practices. The state is in Stage 4.5 of its reopening plan.

Upon news of the state’s increase in COVID-19 cases, the Indiana State Fairgrounds announced it would cancel the fun park originally scheduled to start July 31. Smaller 4-H fair shows will still be held at the state fairgrounds.

Herd immunity

Box said the state is far from establishing herd immunity – when enough of a population has antibodies to stop its spread – and it is likely not a viable plan for combating the new coronavirus in Indiana, based on recent studies.

Indiana reported a positive antibody rate of 1.5 percent in the second phase of a study conducted by the Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health at IUPUI, data from which was released June 17. The findings indicate more than 98 percent of Hoosiers are still susceptible to the virus. The study plans to conduct its third wave of testing some time in the fall.

Spain recently released results from its large-scale study of the spread of the virus in its country. It found just five percent of its population had developed antibodies to the virus, meaning 95 percent of its population remained susceptible.

Another study that released findings in late May showed Sweden, a country that opted for a different strategy to battle the virus by choosing to eschew home lockdowns, was also far from developing herd immunity at the time. The study found only 7.3 percent of Swedes had antibodies to the virus.

Box also called into doubt how long antibodies to the virus would last. She said recent studies suggest antibodies may not last the duration of a person’s life, possibly not lasting longer than a few months.

“With regards to herd immunity, we have some new studies that have come out indicating this coronavirus, like other coronaviruses – those viruses that cause the common cold – tend to behave the same way,” Box said. “We have some viruses where you get it once in your life, and you have immunity forever. You’re never going to get that virus again. You have other viruses – something like HIV – that you may get and probably will have forever and be able to keep that under control with medications.

“The (new) coronavirus people get, they develop some brief immunity, the ability to fight that virus off, but, unfortunately, that immunity doesn’t stay around. You keep getting the common cold over and over again, and that’s what these recent studies have indicated: Even individuals who develop immunity, develop antibodies, unfortunately those antibodies in many cases are disappearing very quickly. So the concern there is that it doesn’t matter how many people we expose. We’re not going to probably develop herd immunity, and, unfortunately, we may just end up with a lot more individuals who have severe consequences or die from this.”

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb said the state would continue to focus on ways it can protect the health and safety of Hoosiers today, saying the idea of herd immunity is one that would not be reached for a period of time, whether it be through a vaccine or other means.

“There’s still this infectious virus rolling around the hills out there,” Holcomb said. “We have to focus on controlling what we can, and that’s our own behavior. That’s how we slow the spread. … It’s critically important that we don’t (only) hope for a vaccine. I’m hoping for it, but that’s not the strategy.”


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