INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana schools got an incentive from the governor Wednesday to require face masks in classrooms in hopes of slowing down the number of COVID-19 outbreaks among students.
Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb issued a new statewide executive order that eases quarantine requirements for students if all children and adults in the school were wearing masks throughout the day. The revised order comes as many Indiana schools have seen COVID-19 outbreaks and the state’s vaccination rate remains stubbornly low.
The Crown Point school district on Wednesday joined the list of districts requiring mask use. Officials reported more than 50 confirmed COVID-19 infections and nearly 900 students out of school on quarantines during the first two weeks of classes.
Holcomb said the COVID-19 spread in Indiana was regrettable but avoidable.
“To the skeptics or unbelievers or deniers, I would just plead to look at the facts, to look at the numerical data that shows we can all stay safe if you get vaccinated,” Holcomb said.
About 46% of Indiana residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the 15th-lowest rate among the states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. State health officials, meanwhile, say 98% of recent COVID-19 hospitalizations are for unvaccinated people.
The coronavirus risk ratings updated weekly by the Indiana State Health Department now put nearly all counties in the higher risk categories for COVID-19 spread as severe illnesses are straining hospitals at levels months earlier than last winter’s surge.
Those updated ratings placed 13 of Indiana’s 92 counties in highest-risk red category, with 75 counties with the next-highest orange rating. Only four counties were in the lower-level yellow category. A month ago, just one county was listed as red and 62 had the lowest-level yellow and blue ratings as the highly contagious delta variant was hitting the state.
Holcomb remained firm against reinstating the statewide mask mandate that expired in April, saying it was “loud and clear” that the public wanted local officials in control of such actions.
New state rules issued Wednesday allow schools to let students deemed as close contacts with someone infected with COVID-19 to remain in school “if all adults and students in the classroom correctly and consistently wear well-fitting masks the entire time, during the educational school day.” Students would have to quarantine only if they developed COVID-19 symptoms.
Several school boards around the state have faced vocal — and sometimes misleading — opposition to mask requirements.
Even so, 54% of Indiana’s public school students were under classroom mask requirements as of Wednesday and at least 60 schools have switched to virtual learning for at least one week because of high numbers of students and staff in quarantine or isolation since the start of the school year, according to the Indiana School Boards Association.
Holcomb said those who have avoided vaccinations need to get the shots.
“That is having an adverse effect on others, not just potentially yourself, but others and our economy and our kids’ education,” Holcomb said. “So, I would just ask to think beyond yourself.”
The governor’s new executive order, which runs through the end of September, reinstates the state’s work search requirements for those receiving welfare benefits and the one-week waiting period before the payment of unemployment benefits begins.
The current COVID-19 surge has boosted Indiana hospitalizations to about 2,300 patients — double the number of patients from two weeks ago and at a level that hospitals didn’t see until early November last year.
Some Indiana hospitals have announced delays in some non-emergency surgeries, but the governor’s new order does not impose any restrictions on surgical procedures as Holcomb had done during last year’s coronavirus surges.