State COVID case map 10-15

The number of COVID-19 cases for each Indiana county as of Oct. 15, 2020.

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana’s seven-day rolling average of new cases of COVID-19 has doubled in three weeks, reaching the highest level the state has seen during the pandemic.

The Health Department’s daily update showed the seven-day rolling average of newly confirmed infections reached 1,653 as of Wednesday. That number, up from 825 new cases on Sept. 24, is the highest level the state has seen during the pandemic.

Health officials on Thursday also confirmed 28 more deaths. A total of 3,632 Hoosiers are confirmed to have died from COVID-19, an increase of 23 from the previous day.

While Gov. Eric Holcomb announced Wednesday he would extend his statewide mask order for another month, he decided against reinstating tougher restrictions at the statewide level.

Holcomb has advocated the use of masks to slow the spread of the coronavirus, but has resisted calls to reimpose tougher business and crowd-size restrictions despite the recent sharp rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations and new infections.

Instead, Dr. Lindsay Weaver, chief medical officer for the Indiana State Department of Health, outlined “very clear guidance and expectations” regarding actions that should occur within each county based on its rating in the state’s color-coded rating system for coronavirus risks, though none of the recommendations come with guaranteed restrictions or specific enforcement mechanisms.

State metrics released Wednesday indicate an increase in counties moving into the orange rating – up to 21 from eight last week. Weaver said state health officials will convene local officials in these counties to discuss necessary restrictions and ways of monitoring social distancing requirements.

For counties in red — indicating the most severe level of COVID-19 spread — Weaver said state health officials could take such actions as limiting the size of social gatherings and restricting capacity inside businesses. No guidance was provided, however, for changes to in-person classes or the need for school closures.

Western Indiana’s Fountain County, the only currently rated red, has traced many COVID-19 cases in its recent surge back to group gatherings and poor compliance with safety protocols, including wearing masks, said Dr. Sean Sharma, health officer for the Fountain and Warren County Health Department.

To help curb the spread, the local health department is now recommending schools temporarily move classes online and cancel extracurricular activities. There are no enforceable restrictions yet, but Sharma said that could be a next step if the rate of virus spread doesn’t improve.

Holcomb’s Democratic challenger in the November election, Dr. Woody Myers, a former state health commissioner, said that Weaver’s outlined recommendations “are good ideas,” but lack “teeth” — such as fines for residents who refuse to wear masks in public.

“What we need to do is go back towards where we were earlier, in order to minimize the spread of the virus,” Myers said during a news briefing Thursday. “If we see positive results, great. If we don’t, we continue down that pathway until we get what we need.”

Although Holcomb took decisive action earlier in the pandemic, including a partial shutdown of the state’s economy and forced school closures, he said a “blanket response” won’t help address current spikes.

“Every one of these cases is an extremely localized occurrence. Every single one of them,” Holcomb said during the news conference Wednesday. “For us to continue to balance our lives and our livelihoods ... We don’t get to say we’ll shut everything down to zero, pull our kids out of school and figure out a way later to care for all those in need.”

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