As 2020 came to an end, Indiana went through two significant surges of COVID-19 in the spring and fall, with smaller spikes occurring during the summer months. As the state enters 2021, cases and deaths remain high, but vaccine distribution has started, pointing the state toward hope that the pandemic will be under control later this year. Indiana State Department of Health
As 2020 came to an end, Indiana went through two significant surges of COVID-19 in the spring and fall, with smaller spikes occurring during the summer months. As the state enters 2021, cases and deaths remain high, but vaccine distribution has started, pointing the state toward hope that the pandemic will be under control later this year. Indiana State Department of Health
INDIANAPOLIS — The pandemic took its toll in 2020.

Statewide, that meant more than 8,000 Hoosiers lost to COVID-19. Locally, nearly 200 families lost a loved one to the novel coronavirus.

Hundreds of thousands picked up the virus to vary degrees. For those that recovered from COVID-19, some experienced no symptoms at all, some suffered cold-like illnesses, some were doggedly sick and others required weeks-long hospital stays before eventually overcoming the sickness.

COVID-19 hit all age groups, all kinds, but was frustrating in its seeming randomness, hitting some hard and others not at all, even sometimes “21” within the same household.

As Indiana enters 2021, health officials are seeing light in the distance. The state started vaccine inoculations in mid-December, distributing to the first 75,000 Hoosiers by the end of the year with hopes of widespread vaccination bringing and end to the pandemic this year.

Two main surges

When looking back at the pandemic across Indiana in 2020, the state went through two main surges with smaller blips along the way.

The first surge was the initial wave of the virus as it first hit the state in March, April and May.

Measuring the pandemic’s impact in spring can’t really be done by cases — testing was so limited at the time that thousands who were ill at the time couldn’t get tested even if they wanted to — but the severity can be seen through the death toll.

Nearly 1,000 Hoosiers died in both April and May as COVID-19 cut through nursing homes, accounting for more than half of the deaths during that time. Indiana also saw more than 1,700 people hospitalized for treatment with COVID-19 at the time, stuffing respiratory wards and intensive care units.

In an effort to blunt the wave coming and to give the state time to marshal a defense and gather resources, Gov. Eric Holcomb put the state under a stay-at-home order in late March, which extended through all of April and into the first week of May.

The stay-at-home order dictated that some critical businesses could remain open but many were forced to shutter or change how they operated. The move came at a high cost as thousands of Hoosiers were put out of work.

Job losses

Some of those job losses were temporary furloughs, but others were longer-lasting. Unemployment went from record lows to record highs in the span of one month. Locally, unemployment hit almost 30% in some northeast Indiana counties as factories went on shutdown during the time.

As the state entered May, Indiana had got better control of COVID-19 in nursing homes, which helped to almost instantly drop the state’s death rate. Indiana also opened dozens of testing sites around the state, giving Hoosiers their first opportunity to get testing for COVID-19 on a nearly as-needed basis.

With that, Holcomb launched Indiana’s “Back on Track” reopening plan, a five-step plan that would slowly reopen certain types of businesses and up limits on gathering sizes if the situation warranted based on metrics including hospitalization rates, positivity, and testing, case and contact tracing metrics.

As summer set in, things in Indiana were looking up.

Whether the stay-at-home blunted transmission sharply or whether warmer weather helped suppress the virus to some extent is unclear, but Indiana enjoyed a relatively smooth summer.

Hoosiers were still getting ill and dying, but at far lower rates than previously. Through July, August and September, Indiana saw only around 10 deaths per day.

Holiday spikes

That’s not to say the situation was perfect. Indiana did see some spikes in COVID-19 activity after the holidays.

Following Memorial Day, northeast Indiana counties started to see sharp surges, especially in LaGrange County, which enacted a public mask order in June.

The Fourth of July also created some concern for the state, as Holcomb ordered a statewide mask mandate and slowed the state’s reopening plan just shy of its final step, creating a previously nonexistent Stage 4.5. At that level, most businesses were allowed to reopen to maximum capacity, with the exception of only the largest types of gatherings and events.

That put a damper on some local events — county fairs were pared back or canceled, although 4-H activities continued on a limited in-person or virtual basis.

But as the state entered September, it was arguably Indiana’s best month.

Testing was high and cases were low, with the state achieving less than 5% positivity rates, a high benchmark to hit but one the state had accomplished for a period of weeks during the month. Health officials continued to preach vigilance, but things were looking good.

Then, the second surge hit and turned all the progress upside down.

By the time October set in, cases started rising sharply. Positivity started rising sharply. Hospitalization started rising sharply. Deaths started rising sharply.

Perhaps it was the return of colder weather, but COVID-19 hit the state hard in fall and never let up.

Autumn was tough

Indiana saw steady daily rises across nearly every indicator throughout all of October and November, breaking record highs every few days.

November became Indiana’s deadliest month on record, passing the tolls of April and May as the state reported 1,360 deaths in the month.

Those all-time highs continued into early December, but Indiana finally hits its peak and started to come off those record levels.

After peaking at more than 3,400 patients in hospitals on Nov. 30, hospitalization numbers have been in a slow but steady decline. Cases peaked in the first week of December and then started coming down even before holiday breaks dropped numbers from closed testing sites. And by the second week, daily deaths counts had started to turn the corner, remaining higher than ever but at least started to slowly drop.

That progress didn’t come without its own toll, though, as 2,455 Hoosiers died from the virus in December, making it significantly more deadly than November before it.

Vaccine distributions started in December and state health officials are hopeful that as immunity expands through vaccines, the state should see significantly reduced impact from the virus in early 2021 as high-risk individuals are inoculated and the general public gets shots later in the year.

Locally, more than 11,500 residents in northeast Indiana tested positive for COVID-19 in 2020, with many more who likely did pick it up without ever knowing it because they showed little or no symptoms.

Noble tops cases

Noble County, which has the largest population, had the highest case count at 4,081 on the year. The county, which had hosted a free testing site at the Community Learning Center in Kendallville, also benefited from having higher daily testing totals than other counties, helping to parse out who did and didn’t have the virus.

DeKalb County topped 3,000 cases by the end of the year, sitting at 3,014 as the state entered 2021. Steuben County followed in third with 2,681 cases and LaGrange County logged 2,059 cases, although that county had lowest testing rate of any county in the state.

The death toll in the four-county area tallied 196 reported as of the end of the year.

Noble County had led the region in deaths for most of the year, having had significant outbreaks in nursing homes in spring that had claimed dozens of lives, but late in the year, other counties saw surging death counts to overtake it.

DeKalb County logged the most deaths in 2020 at 60, while LaGrange County, despite its lowest official case count, was second with 56 deaths. Noble County had 55 deaths and Steuben County tallied 25.

While full-year death counts aren’t available yet, based on previous annual death totals it’s likely that COVID-19 accounted for more than 10% or more of all deaths in the four-county area in 2020.

More than half of those total deaths, 119, occurred in the final two months of the year. DeKalb County logged 49 of its 60 deaths in November and December; LaGrange County tallied 38 of its 56; and Steuben County had 15 of its 25 deaths at the end of the year.

Noble County was the only county to have fewer than half of its deaths in the last two months, with 17 of 55 occurring in November and December.

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