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Amid Spread Of New Virus Variation, Officials Advise Doubling Down On Pandemic Protocols

This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. The illness caused by this virus has been named coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

(CDC/Alissa Eckert, MS)

As of Jan. 13, Hoosiers older than 70 are eligible to schedule a free COVID-19 vaccination appointment. To register, visit the state's vaccine website or call 211.

When state health officials announced last week a variation of COVID-19 had been found in Indiana, it may not have been what a pandemic-weary public needed to hear.

But it was not unexpected. Viruses always mutate.

The good news is that this mutation, which was first identified in Great Britain last fall, has shown to be no more lethal than the original strain, which has now caused 2 million deaths world-wide.

But it is more contagious; at least 50% so. Some studies have said 75%.

And that led a number of questions submitted to our City Limits: Coronavirus project asking if people need to adjust the recommended practices to avoid COVID-19 wearing masks, washing hands and social distancing.

The answer is no, said Graham McKeen, the Assistant University Director of Public and Environmental Health at Indiana University.

But because the Great Britain strain is so much more contagious, McKeen suggests doubling down on preventative measures, and more.

“I think it’s time to consider using more protective masks,” McKeen said. “Surgical masks, isolation masks, N-95s and things like that that are more protective. Maybe those are more important than they were before.”

The concern with anything more contagious is that means more cases and more cases mean more deaths.

The United State surpassed 400,000 COVID-19 fatalities this week.

“Any time that you have anything that’s more transmittable, it’s going to increase the reproductive rate of that disease and make it harder to control,” McKeen said. “And I think it’s a concern because we have just this much shear spread already in the population.”

It’s not the only mutation out there and it won’t be the last. McKeen says two variations were found in Ohio and another in California.

“There’s one on South Africa that seems to be concerning,” McKeen said. “It has a mutation they call an escape mutation they think would allow it to evade either an antibody, medication or maybe a vaccine.

“But the good thing is, overall, these vaccines do appear to be safe or effective against these variants.”

And with a COVID-19 vaccine already in hand, scientists can simply adjust it as they go along to combat the mutations. It’s the same technique used for the yearly flu vaccines.

But the problem has been getting the vaccine to the people.

Since the first doses arrived on Jan. 8, IU Health has administered more than 10,000 vaccine shots in Bloomington. Those have gone to healthcare workers, first responders and those 80 years and older.

READ MORE: IU Health Tops 10K Vaccines In Bloomington, Ready To 'Flex Up' For More

Last week, the state expanded its distribution plan to include those aged 70 and over. But, the state’s website to register for a shot shows no appointments available in Monroe and surrounding counties until the middle of next month.

Monroe County Health Administrator Penny Caudill said to keep checking the website for available times because appointments can open up as more vaccines become available.

“We’re not scheduling appointments when we don’t have vaccines,” she said. “So, keep that in mind. It will come, so check back.”

IU Health South Central Region Chief Medical Officer Dr. Dan Handel says hospitals are distributing the vaccines as soon as they get them.

“As many vaccines as the state or otherwise will give us we want to get to people,” Handel said. “All of us are ready, and we’ll continue to flex up as the supplies become more available.”

Right now, there are 188 sites in the state – and just two in Monroe County – where you can receive the vaccination.

Last week, IU Health announced a partnership with the Monroe County Health Department to distribute the vaccine. And local health departments around the state have been working with pharmacies to get the vaccine out. McKeen said 45 Kroger locations are expected to begin distribution in the next week or two.

READ MORE: Volunteers Can Assist In Monroe County's COVID-19 Vaccination Process

Handel strongly recommends you schedule both shots at the same place. But if that’s not an option, you must make sure your second dose is from the same company as the first dose.

“So, if you get your first shot, you know, at your clinic in Indiana, and then you're a Snowbird and you go to Florida, you can you do that,” Handel said. “You just have to figure out what shot you had the first time.”

In other words, if your first shot is by Pfizer, the second shot must be Pfizer, too. Same with Moderna, the other producer of the vaccine.

But, everything hinges on getting enough vaccine. The state can’t provide a timeline for when more Hoosiers will be able to receive the vaccine. The next targeted group to receive the vaccine will be those 60 and older.

McKeen is hopeful the new administration in Washington can ramp up distribution and provide more resources to the states to help with a backlog of getting shots into arms. So far, around 32 million doses have been sent to the states, but only a little more than half that number have been distributed to the public.

“I think there needs to be a lot more investment in kind of boots on the ground, the human capital, and just the people to push it out,” McKeen said. “And, you know, a lot of people are working on that.”

With the vaccine now in circulation, McKeen thinks the pandemic has reached its apex.

“Cases have decreased in the last week in 35 states, deaths have decreased in 18 states last week, so there are some rays of sunshine here,” he said.

For the latest news and resources about COVID-19, bookmark our Coronavirus In Indiana page here.

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

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