Dr. Bethany Wait

Dr. Bethany Wait,  pictured here at a news conference in April, is concerned for the many Elkhart County residents who have not been vaccinated for COVID-19 but emphasizes that getting the vaccine is a personal choice. 

ELKHART — The number of Elkhart County residents getting vaccinated for COVID-19 has dropped to about 200 a day. That includes people getting their first and second doses, meaning that the group of fully vaccinated residents grows by about 0.05 percentage points per day.

That group represents about 32.8 percent of eligible county residents; at this pace, the county is 744 days – or more than two years – from having 70 percent of residents vaccinated, a goal staked out early as the level needed to reach herd immunity.

So is it time to accept that the vaccine will not reach many more people locally?

“I don’t think we necessarily need to accept that we’re not going to,” Elkhart County Health Officer Dr. Bethany Wait said. “I think it’s just a matter of continued education.”

She expects an uptick in vaccinations once children under 12, who make up about 18 percent of the county’s population, become eligible for the vaccine, even if not all of them get the shot. Statewide, 23.2 percent of children ages 12-15 have received at least one dose, and 18.3 percent are fully vaccinated, according to the Indiana State Department of Health.

Clear differences in vaccine uptake can be found within the county, with the Goshen ZIP code having the highest rate at 48 percent of people 12 or older being fully vaccinated. Northern Elkhart follows at 46 percent, while Middlebury, Nappanee and Millersburg come in at 29.3 percent, 23.6 percent and 18.6 percent, respectively.

The extremes are clearest just beyond the county borders, with Granger having 70 percent of the 12+ population fully vaccinated, while Topeka has the lowest vaccine uptake in Indiana, at 11.9 percent.

Wait said that, while the county does try to reach people in the low-uptake areas to explain the benefits of the vaccines, she accepts that some people are not going to get vaccinated.

“I think that individuals are going to make up their own mind and, at this point in time, if we haven’t swayed them ... it’s a completely personal choice,” she said.

She has been emphasizing that personal choice and is frustrated with some claims that she is the big government forcing its will on the people or that she is part of some conspiracy. Every time a myth is busted, she said, another one pops up in a never-ending game of conspiracy theory whack-a-mole.

“I’m tired of being accused of pushing an agenda and doing it inappropriately,” Wait said. “This is medicine for me, and this is how I was trained to think about how we train and prevent diseases.”

When the pandemic hit, the Elkhart County Health Department quickly went from being a part of the government that most people didn’t need to think about to the, perhaps, most discussed local government entity.

Wait didn’t become the health officer until the beginning of 2021, but she wishes that more people had a better understanding early on of what the Health Department is actually supposed to do, which is to track and prevent the spread of diseases. Normally, that involves diseases such as tuberculosis, parasites and STDs, which don’t tend to spread to as many people as COVID-19 has, so the department has not always received a lot of attention, whether positive or negative.

Wait acknowledged that a county health officer may not be the best messenger for convincing individuals to get vaccinated; that would be someone’s primary care physician, she said. That is why another reason to be hopeful that the vaccine uptake may increase is founded in those doctors becoming able to give the doses to their patients. Beacon Health System’s primary care offices recently began that effort.

“I think a majority of people have a primary care doctor whom they trust, and so having that conversation individually with your primary care doctor about whether you should get the vaccine or not, I think, is an easier one-on-one topic than just listening to me in the paper or listening to me on a podcast,” Wait said.

Even with only a third of the county’s population being fully vaccinated, the number of infections and deaths is significantly down compared to before the vaccines became available. On June 30, only one new case of COVID-19 was detected in the entire county, which is the lowest number since the early days of the local outbreak, and much lower than the peak of 426 on Nov. 13. Seven COVID-19 were confirmed among county residents in the past 30 days, which is also significantly lower than what was normal before the vaccine rollout. But lately, some concern has been spreading about what the more contagious coronavirus variants, particularly the Delta variant, could do in areas that have low vaccine uptakes.

“As for Elkhart County directly, I don’t know if the Delta variant is here. It’s in the state of Indiana, so odds are it likely is here, and that might be why we’re seeing a little bit of a jump in our cases,” Wait said.

The seven-day average for confirmed cases hit its lowest point since last April on July 6, at four, but has increased somewhat since, and was at 10 as of Tuesday, in part because of a recent high of 22 new cases being reported Monday. The county remains at the blue advisory level, which is the least severe of the four levels used by the state.

Wait said she will remain concerned for as long as the virus is in Elkhart County, but she is not particularly afraid of overwhelming the hospitals again. She is afraid for the unvaccinated people who risk death or long-term effects from the disease.

“At this point, if you’re opting not to get vaccinated, I think you understand the risk and you’re accepting that, and you’re accepting that for your family,” she said. “It’s a preventable disease.”

Follow Rasmus S. Jorgensen on Twitter at @ReadRasmus

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