State Health Commissioner Dr. Kris Box (left) and Dr. Lindsay Weaver, chief medical officer of the Indiana Health Department, detail COVID-19 variants. They spoke at a news conference in Indianapolis on Thursday. CNHI Indiana News photo by Whitney Downard | CNHI Statehouse Bureau
State Health Commissioner Dr. Kris Box (left) and Dr. Lindsay Weaver, chief medical officer of the Indiana Health Department, detail COVID-19 variants. They spoke at a news conference in Indianapolis on Thursday. CNHI Indiana News photo by Whitney Downard | CNHI Statehouse Bureau
INDIANAPOLIS — As infectious COVID-19 variants populate and Hoosiers postpone or refuse coronavirus vaccines, health officials warn that Indiana’s hospitalizations will further increase and may be followed by more deaths.

“The delta variant … represents the majority of the variants found in the samples we are testing,” Dr. Kris Box, state health commissioner, said Friday. “This is important because these mutations of the virus have been shown to be more infectious, more easily transmitted and potentially cause more severe illness than the original strain.”

The state identifies variants through a randomized sample, meaning the 5,203 cases identified are likely an undercount.

The alpha variant, initially identified in the United Kingdom, makes up the largest portion of identified variants and has been found in a recent outbreak of a Howard County nursing home. Three other nursing homes — in Allen, Gibson and Fulton counties — have also had recent outbreaks.

“At least 27 cases have been identified with these four facilities since mid-June, and we’re unfortunately aware of at least seven deaths,” Box said. “All of those have occurred among residents; most of the cases at these facilities occurred among individuals who were unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated.”

As of late June, 79% of nursing home residents are vaccinated, but only 49% of nursing home staff are vaccinated, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

In vaccinations of residents, Indiana ranks 27th out of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico. In terms of vaccinated staffers, Indiana ranks 43rd.

Residents of long-term care centers, such as nursing homes, are particularly susceptible to COVID-19 because of their age and because they live in congregate settings. Among vaccinated Hoosiers, there have been 132 COVID-19 deaths, which began as breakthrough infections (they broke through a vaccine's protection. The median age of those dying is 81.

"Many people have underlying health conditions, whether you’re the resident there or the staff, so when they’re not vaccinated they’re at risk,” Box said. “Most of these infections come in from the outside (of the facility). If it’s someone who comes to visit, (the chance of infecting a resident) is extremely rare; it’s more likely a staff person that brings it in.”

To encourage staff, especially, to get the vaccine, Box said the health department visits after outbreaks to host forums and answer vaccine-related questions. However, the best way to convince someone who is hesitant remains personal conversations.

“People who have yet to be vaccinated are concerned about safety, wanted to take more time or learn more,” said Dr. Lindsay Weaver, the state department's chief medical officer. “They’re very motivated by one-on-one conversations, whether that’s with a peer or with their primary care provider. So we do encourage people that if you have questions, if you have concerns, please take the time to talk to somebody you trust or your local health care providers to get some more information.”
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