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Douglas: Now not the time to let guard down on COVID

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Despite the slowing of COVID-19 spread, Montgomery County’s health officer says now is not the time to let the guard down.

“The number of cases we’re having right now is still higher than where we were in September,” Dr. Scott Douglas said in an interview Tuesday.

“And we need to continue to be vigilant in terms of mask wearing and distancing to limit the spread of infection … that’s what’s going to help us keep kids in school and help keep folks healthy and safe,” he said.

As states ease coronavirus restrictions, health experts are warning of more contagious strains of the virus such as the U.K. variant, which has been reported in Indiana. Disease experts suggest the U.K. variant will become the predominant COVID strain in the state by the end of March.

What impact the variant may have on case counts and positivity rates is unknown, but Douglas said there may be an uptick in new infections or a slowing in the drop of cases.

Montgomery County saw a nearly 62% decrease in new infections from January to February, according to figures from the Indiana State Department of Health. The county remains in the yellow on the state’s color-coded COVID-19 map, representing the second-lowest level of spread.

As the number of new cases decline, fewer people are getting tested for the virus. A total of 5,955 tests were conducted in February, down from 6,667 the month before. There were 7,262 tested done in December.

Experts worry that a drop in testing will make it harder to identify cases quickly and limit their spread.

“Even if you think that you just have a common cold, please get tested because … sometimes COVID has very minimal symptoms,” Douglas said, “and if we don’t identify that you’ve got the virus, we can’t help you prevent that from spreading to your family and friends.”

On the vaccine front, Indiana extended eligibility to the 50 and older age group on Wednesday. The state received just under 54,000 doses of the newly authorized Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine this week, said Dr. Lindsay Weaver, chief medical officer of the Indiana State Department of Health.

Of those, 21,000 doses will be used at the state’s upcoming mass vaccination sites in Indianapolis, Sellersburg and South Bend with the rest distributed to vaccination clinics across the state.

The single shot is ideal for harder-to-reach populations, such as people experiencing homelessness, who may not otherwise be fully vaccinated.

Local public health officials will work with staff at the Montgomery County Jail to distribute the shots to inmates, Douglas said. The county will not receive any shipments of the vaccine until it submits a plan to the state.

More than 5,400 Montgomery County residents have received at least the first dose of a COVID vaccine since mid-December, according to the Indiana State Department of Health. Close to half of those individuals are fully vaccinated.

Vaccines are currently available to residents age 50 and older, health care workers and first responders.

To schedule a vaccine, visit www.ourshot.in.gov and select a clinic location. Vaccines are also available by appointment at Walmart and Kroger.

Vaccines are also available for people in certain high-risk categories. They include individuals with sickle cell anemia or Down syndrome and people who’ve received a solid organ transplant.

Vaccines will also be available to individuals who are on dialysis or actively being treated for cancer, and those who’ve received treatment for cancer in the last three months.

Those individuals will be identified by their physician and the state will contact the person to schedule an appointment.

Douglas praised President Joe Biden’s announcement on Monday that he wants every educator, school staff member and child care worker in every state to receive at least one dose of the vaccine by the end of the month.

The White House is launching the Federal Pharmacy Program for the effort, allowing educators to sign up for appointments at Kroger, Meijer or Walmart when the vaccine becomes available.

“If we have adequate vaccine to provide to the pharmacies to get that accomplished, that’s terrific,” Douglas said.

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