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Monroe County mask mandate ends Friday, but health officials warn the pandemic isn't over

People in Masks

(Chris Meyer/Indiana University)

The “masks required” signs on doors and storefronts in Monroe County will be a thing of the past come this weekend.

The Monroe County Board of Health voted Thursday to end the state’s last remaining county-wide mask mandate as of 12:01 a.m. Friday. 

So, after two years of on-again, off-again mandates, you’ll no longer be required to mask up when inside schools, businesses, restaurants. Anywhere.

But that doesn’t necessarily signal the end of the pandemic.

“I don’t know if I’d still call 65,000 cases a day in the U.S., and 50,000 still in the hospital and 10,000 in the ICU and 1800 deaths per day endemic yet,” said Graham McKeen, the assistant director of public and environmental health at Indiana University. “That’s not really endemic, but I think we very well could be exiting the pandemic phase.”

READ MORE: Indiana surpasses 22,000 dead, rate slows following trend with cases, hospitalizations

Regardless of the mandate being lifted, McKeen said he’s not ready to ditch his mask.

“I think I will mask in certain indoor situations like grocery stores or Assembly Hall and place like that where larger amounts of people, and maybe I don’t know their vaccination status,” he said.

Monroe County health department administrator Penny Caudill agreed.

“Will I wear it as consistently as I might in terms of the regulation? Maybe not, but I certainly will be somebody who continues to wear masks,” she said.

McKeen said people continuing to wear masks should use only the high-filtration K-95 or KN-95 masks rather than cloth or surgical masks, which have proven to be much less effective.

The end of the county’s mask mandate coincides with tomorrow’s expiration of the state health emergency.

And it comes as COVID numbers in the state have fallen drastically from the last wave in mid-January. Just six weeks ago, almost 19,000 new cases were reported daily, about 3,400 Hoosiers were hospitalized, and more than 70 were dying daily from the virus.

Today, those numbers are down to about 300 new daily positive cases, fewer than a thousand Hoosiers are hospitalized and daily deaths are in the single digits.

“I think there’s lots of reasons to be optimistic about getting back towards a quote, unquote, normal routine,” said Shaun Grannis, the vice president of data analytics for the Regenstrief Institute in Indianapolis.

“Right now, we don’t have any indications of any new major significant variants that we think might cause problems. We know that we’re increasingly developing immunity among our population, we know that we’re heading into those warmer months. So, I think there’s a lot positive signs right now.

“My overall hopes is that we move into that endemic state, where COVID becomes a regular routine, with known frequency for vaccines, like influenza.”

One thing that may work against the state is the fact that just more than 54 percent of the state is fully vaccinated. And with COVID numbers dropping, so too is the number of Hoosiers getting vaccinated.

Grannis co-authored a CDC study on the effectiveness of vaccines. He said if you haven’t been vaccinated or are partially vaccinated, you should still get the shot.

“Vaccination plus prior infection was superior to vaccination alone. So that prior infection does give a little bump,” Grannis said. “But if you are partially vaccinated, or if you only have been previously infected, the data that I’ve seen suggests you will not be as good as if you are fully vaccinated.”

Shawna Girgis, the program director for IU Health South Central Region, says normal operations have resumed because of decreasing hospitalizations for COVID.

“This is allowing our teams to focus on the backlog of elective surgeries and other health care needs within our community,” Girgis. “This is very good timing with the mask order ending in Monroe County. And I'm sure I'm not the only person who's excited to take this step toward our new normal.”

Both Grannis and McKeen are concerned that the drop in testing for COVID-19 will make tracking positivity rates more difficult.

Along with continuing to track hospitalizations and new cases, McKeen would like to see more wastewater surveillance, which can indicate rising cases more quickly.

READ MORE: City continues COVID-19 wastewater monitoring

He says another thing to keep in mind is that children under five are not able to get the vaccine and the virus isn’t going away any time soon.

“I think what really concerns me the most are all the high risk vulnerable, and all the immunocompromised that are kind of hung out to dry a little bit, so we still need to protect them,” McKeen said. “I think we’re going to have a lot of disabled and suffering people from this because, you know, death isn’t the only outcome.”

Individual businesses will still be able to require masks. And masks will still be required on planes, public buses and mass transit facilities under the federal health emergency, which remains in effect until March 18th. 

 

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