GOSHEN — Local coronavirus-related restrictions could be lifted earlier than expected, although health officials said Friday they will continue to take a step-by-step approach to stemming the spread of COVID-19.

At a news conference Friday, county Health Officer Dr. Bethany Wait said the county may not have to wait until 70 percent of the adult population is vaccinated before lifting restrictions, as previously suggested.

“I don’t necessarily think that we are going to have to continue to be shut down until that 70 percent is met,” Wait said.

Instead, she said, the county may take a step-by-step approach to reopening.

“What happens when schools fully come back? How do our rates go? If they look great, all right, what’s the next step? Can we get our restaurants, our businesses, all up to 100 percent capacity and not have a spread?” Wait said.

If that can be done without reaching the goal of vaccinating 70 percent of adults, Wait said she is all for it.

“I don’t have any problem with that,” she said.

In a statement released Feb. 2, Wait said she did “not anticipate the Elkhart County COVID-19 mitigation directives being modified or lifted until the Elkhart County adult population reaches 70 percent vaccinated.”

Health experts believe herd immunity may be reached when 70 percent of the population has been vaccinated, which is why Wait set that target. Some, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, have suggested that 90 percent may need to be vaccinated for the virus to be defeated.

But the main reason for having restrictions and asking people to make sacrifices is to avoid a high number of deaths and hospitalizations, which crippled the health system in late 2020. However, 93.6 percent of the 402 Elkhart County residents who have died from COVID-19 were 60 or older, and the majority of hospitalized residents have been older as well.

That is why older residents are among the first groups able to be vaccinated, and Wait has said the county should be done vaccinating residents who are 60 or older by the end of March. That should reduce the number of deaths and hospitalizations.

People who are 65 or older make up about 21 percent of Elkhart County’s adult population, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

As of Thursday, about 4 percent of Elkhart County’s total population had been fully vaccinated, while 9 percent had received the first of two doses, according to the Indiana State Department of Health. But the process is speeding up: A total of 27,000 doses have been administered to county residents since vaccinations began in mid-December, but the county is now receiving 8,200 doses per week, Wait said.

Another 1,018 county residents received a shot Thursday.

Wait, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, say those who have been vaccinated should continue to wear masks and take other precautions. Wait admitted Friday that saying so could result in taking away an incentive for some to get the vaccine, but that there’s no practical way to have a mask-mandate for some but not for others.

“I think that it does disincentivize people to get their vaccine, outside of in general, if we can get 70 percent of people to vaccinate, then we all can take off our masks,” she said.

Elkhart County’s seven-day average for new infections was at 26 per day on Thursday, which, other than Wednesday’s 25, is the lowest since May 11. The county’s positive test rate hit a seven-day average of 5.6 percent, a level not seen since the beginning of the local outbreak last March. Elkhart General Hospital had 11 COVID-19 inpatients Friday, while Goshen Hospital had eight; both are many times below what was the case when the outbreak was at its worst.

Twenty-six county residents died from COVID-19 in the past 30 days, which is about four times fewer than during the peak in November, though the rate of nearly 1 COVID-19 death per day is still similar to what has been the case for most of the pandemic.

Follow Rasmus S. Jorgensen on Twitter at @ReadRasmus

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