Indiana COVID-19 numbers down after scaled-back reporting
Vaccines also now available for virtually all residents
(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
COVID-19 numbers are down after the state health department scaled back its COVID-19 reporting protocols earlier this year and vaccines are available for most all residents.
Children between 6 months and 5 years old are the latest group to be able to get their immunizations under a new federal authorization.
State officials made significant changes to the state’s COVID-19 dashboards, taking away much of the information that had been publicly available since early in the pandemic. That included moving away from single-day counts of COVID-19 metrics and removing the county metrics map.
The remaining elements of the dashboard are only updated three times a week rather than five days a week and instead focus on how much stress COVID-19 places on the state’s hospitals.
Some tests not counted
The biggest change is that only PCR tests — those that usually come back within a few days — are reported to the Indiana Department of Health. Negative rapid or antigen tests — including those taken at a hospital, pharmacy, school or your home — are no longer reported. Antibody test results, whether positive or negative, are also not required to be reported.
Indiana recorded 287,518 tests administered in May, a drop from the 600,835 tests recorded a year ago in May 2021, according to state data.
Testing and deaths are both reported as a seven-day average rather than how many have been reported the previous day, which health officials said has helped allow for lags in reporting.
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Health officials said the prevalence of at-home COVID-19 tests — and no reporting mechanism for those positive tests — prompted the state’s move away from that metric.
They also pointed to the expansion of COVID-19 vaccines for children as young as 6 months old, which is expected to provide an added layer of protection for students, teachers and school staff.
The changes reflect the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) approach of focusing on monitoring the overall activity of COVID-19 rather than tracking individual cases.
Officials at the state health department said in a statement to Indiana Capital Chronicle that the surveillance model — in conjunction with CDC’s community transmission levels — “allows us to monitor trends and make recommendations to address any concerns at a state level.”
It also allows schools and local communities to make local decisions in conjunction with their local public health and elected leaders, officials said.
Long-term care and hospitals
Although the state is no longer publishing a public-facing long-term care facilities dashboard, reporting by LTC providers has not changed, said Lori Davenport, regulatory and clinical affairs director at the Indiana Health Care Association. Long-term care facilities continue to test and report COVID-19 positive cases of employees and or residents — including from rapid tests — to the state health department within 24 hours.
Facilities are continuing to focus on infection control, vaccination administration, screening, testing, and reporting, Davenport said. Those efforts “will continue until the end of the pandemic,” even without the additional COVID-19 funding support that was received before, “which adds significant financial pressure on the facilities.”
Davenport emphasized that the pandemic has created “significant challenges” for long-term care and assisted living facilities. The most critical issue, she continued, is the “unprecedented” workforce shortage affecting long-term care.
Indiana has lost 14.5% of its long-term care workforce — more than 11,500 Hoosier workers — since February 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Davenport stressed that the number of practitioners is continuing to decrease despite providers raising wages, increasing benefits, and taking other competitive actions to be more attractive.
That’s largely because long-term care facilities are primarily reliant on public funding — unlike other sectors of the healthcare industry — making it difficult to maintain a workforce.
“LTC providers … are doing everything in their power to recruit, train and seek the best employees,” Davenport said. “Some members continue to operate at a loss to keep employees in their buildings.”
Separately, a new hospital dashboard makes available the number of people hospitalized in Indiana with COVID-19, along with the number in the intensive care unit, and on ventilators, as well as whether those data points are trending up or down over a seven-day average. It does not include the percentage of intensive care unit beds or ventilators available across the state, however.
Health department officials said they removed the feature because the most recent omicron surge proved that hospitals have the ability to expand and contract with community needs.
State health officials announced in February that K-12 schools and childcare programs no longer have to report COVID-19 cases to the state or conduct contact tracing. Schools also no longer need to quarantine students who are exposed to a positive COVID-19 case, regardless of vaccination status or whether the school requires masks.
Chief Medical Officer Dr. Lindsay Weaver said the changes resulted from declining COVID-19 cases in Indiana.
“The increased use of at-home tests and other antigen tests that are never reported to the state has diluted the value of posting a daily positivity rate,” Weaver said. “A better measurement is the impact that COVID-19 is having on our health care systems, and our dashboard revisions will make it much easier to see how hospitals are being impacted.”
Schools are still expected to notify local health departments in the event of an outbreak or cluster, Weaver said. They are also encouraged to share information with families when a case is identified.
“Thankfully, we’re at that point where (COVID-19) seems to be a secondary issue, not a primary issue of daily concern,” said Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association. “I think school districts are in a good position now … they are prepared to get through the next school year and to decide which health and safety protocols need to be implemented at any given time.”
Spradlin added that the new statewide reporting protocols for submitting COVID-19 numbers to the state “creates one less burden” for school administrators. Future virus spikes in individual schools could be influenced by the percentage of students and school staff who are vaccinated, he continued, although districts do not have the authority to require the shots before the start of the next academic year.
Surveillance moving forward
Roughly 58% of Hoosiers age 5 and up are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the latest state health department statistics. The state health department said parents can get their youngest children vaccinated by contacting their health care provider, visiting the state website, or by calling 211.
The state’s other remaining COVID-19 dashboards include those for youth, hospitals and individual counties.
Health department officials said the dashboards reflect current trends and needs. As they continue to monitor the ongoing impact of the virus, that could mean changes to what data is collected and made publicly available.
If the state sees an increase in new cases, health officials said they can easily increase the frequency of updates again.
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