The Lake County Health Officer told the Lake County Council Tuesday that people should wear masks and get vaccinated to limit the spread of COVID-19, but it wasn’t enough for the council to take action on an ordinance to incentivize vaccinations for employees.

A new state law requires that county health officers who want to be stricter than the current COVID-19 executive orders signed by Gov. Eric Holcomb have to go before the county legislative body, which is the county council in Lake County, for approval.

The current executive order, effective until Feb. 1, gives “individual responsibility” in fighting the virus while giving some guidance on vaccinations and what to do if someone was exposed to the virus.

Health Officer Dr. Chandana Vavilala gave an update on the state of the pandemic in Lake County and answered questions about how the county could decrease the spread of the virus. But, she did not present the council with an order and the council did not request her to write up an order in response to the virus.

“It doesn’t matter what this council says, it’s up to each and every one of the individuals to practice those beliefs,” Council President Ted Bilski, D-Hobart, said. “There’s no police department that’s going to go running around arresting people for not wearing mask or because you have 10 people in your garage standing around a keg. We don’t have the time, resources, or the effort, and I don’t have the patience for it.”

As of Monday, the state reported 11,932 new positive cases and 110 new COVID-19 deaths, for a total of 1.3 million positive cases and 19,194 total deaths since March 2020.

In Lake County, 640 new positive cases and 16 new COVID-19 deaths were reported as a Monday, for a total of 95,466 total positive cases and 1,416 total deaths since March 2020.

Vavilala told the council that since Thanksgiving the number of COVID-19 cases have increased because of the omicron variant of the virus.

“Omicron has the tendency to spread much more rapidly, even though, to some extent, it does not cause as much severity in terms of causing people to be sick and hospitalizations,” Vavilala said.

Viruses mutate so everyone has to “take care of things as they are right now and, to some extent, do our best to anticipate the things which could happen and try to prevent them,” Vavilala said.

Given how quickly omicron is spreading, Vavilala said “there is some hope” that it will peak within the next few weeks and by early February the numbers will decrease again.

Currently, area hospitals are at full capacity and emergency rooms are running on bypass because there are so many patients, Vavilala said.

The issue, Vavilala said, is that COVID-19 patients are coming in with other emergency cases, like broken bones or heart attacks, so beds in hospitals are filling up.

“There is only so many number of beds in a hospital,” Vavilala said. “The emergency rooms are pretty much full. The hospital beds are full. The intensive care unit beds are full.”

Elective surgeries are being postponed again, Vavilala said, because if a patient would require an intensive care unit bed after surgery a bed wouldn’t be available.

“This is the ground reality,” Vavilala said.

Councilwoman Christine Cid, D-East Chicago, asked Vavilala if the council could do anything to assist the health department in its effort to limit the spread of the virus.

Vavilala said “it would be good for people to wear masks in all indoor gatherings” and for students and teachers to wear masks in schools. To help limit the spread of the virus and to lessen the burden on hospitals, Vavilala said people should get vaccinated and wear masks.

Councilman Charlie Brown, D-Gary, said Vavilala should’ve asked for $1 million when asked what the council could do to help the health department.

“What would I do with $1 million if people are not safe,” Vavilala said.

In September, the council voted 5-2 against a school mask mandate order Vavilala drafted after listening to 18 people, who cited misinformation about masks.

Bilski said schools have the opportunity to implement a mask mandate and that he’s “not going down that rabbit hole.”

People should avoid large gatherings, social distance, wash their hands and cover their mouths when they cough, Bilski said, adding that he’s received his COVID-19 vaccines.

“I think we have to continue to exercise common sense, things your parents should have taught you,” Bilski said. “This is a real virus. It’s not politically generated. People are really getting sick.”

Cid put forth an ordinance to give a vaccine incentive of $150 to employees who get their COVID-19 vaccinations and booster shot by Sept. 1. The ordinance states that the funds would come from the county’s American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 Local Fiscal Recovery Grant Fund.

If all 2,576 full-time and part-time employees were to get vaccinated, the ordinance states it would cost $386,400, according to the ordinance. In total, the county will receive $96.3 million in ARP funds, according to the ordinance.

Bilski said he would vote against the ordinance because he’s asked the council’s attorney to draft an ordinance that states any employee who is vaccinated but catches the virus would be able to stay at home to quarantine and receive up to 80 hours of paid leave of absence.

Bilski asked for a deferral on the ordinance, which Cid said she disagrees with.

“I would hate to see that deferred when we have a health crisis out there,” Cid said. “The sooner people get vaccinated the more we get this under control.”

The council voted 6-1 to defer the ordinance to the Feb. 8 meeting. Cid voted against deferral.
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