ELKHART — Seventy percent of Elkhart County’s 16-and-older population should be vaccinated against COVID-19 by the end of June, Elkhart County Health Officer Dr. Bethany Wait said Tuesday.
Elkhart County is running behind some neighboring counties, including St. Joseph and Marshall counties, when it comes to the percentage of residents vaccinated. In Elkhart County, 10.9 percent are fully vaccinated, while the numbers are 14.1 percent in St. Joseph County and 12.6 percent in Marshall County. LaGrange County has the state’s lowest vaccine uptake, at 7.9 percent. Five counties, all in southern Indiana, have more than 20 percent of the 16+ population fully vaccinated.
Wait said there is no reason to be concerned by those numbers.
“St. Joe for sure has gotten more vaccines than we have. They also have had – consistently and for quite a bit longer – more vaccination sites than we have had,” she said.
But now, Wait said, Elkhart County has caught up with St. Joseph in how many vaccines it receives from the state each week. And while Indiana State Department of Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Lindsay Weaver last week said Elkhart County had relatively low vaccine uptake, Wait said vaccine hesitancy is not playing a role.
However, Elkhart County is about 15 to 20 percentage points more Republican than St. Joseph County, and conservatives are more likely to be skeptical of getting a coronavirus vaccine, according to surveys, including one conducted in early March by The Marist Poll, sponsored by NPR and PBS Newshour.
“I think we have pockets of hesitancy, but in general, our vaccine appointments are full,” Wait said. “It’s not that people aren’t signing up for the vaccines.”
Hoosiers do not have to live in the county where they get their vaccine, and since thousands of people commute to Elkhart County each day and some people are willing to travel just for a vaccine, some doses in Elkhart County go to residents of other counties, according to Elkhart General Hospital Vice President of Medical Affairs Dr. Michelle Bache.
Wait noted that 59.9 percent of residents who have received the vaccine are women, but part of the explanation for that may be that women live longer and more likely to work in health care (76 percent of health care workers are women, according to the U.S. Census Bureau), meaning that more women have been eligible for longer. However, Wait said, first responders, many of whom are men, have also long been eligible but have not been getting vaccinated to the degree she had hoped they would.
Beginning April 1, the county will begin a 90-day effort to get 70 percent of the 16+ population vaccinated, Wait said. The county will be working with the Mishawaka PR firm Big Idea Company to create a campaign that targets different communities within the county and addresses the concerns in each group. Wait also hopes to take mobile clinics around the county, which would make it easier to reach people working for large companies and people who cannot easily travel around the county. However, she said, that will depend on how many doses become available to the county.
Getting 70 percent vaccinated by June would mean that big summer events like the Elkhart Jazz Festival, scheduled for late June, and the Elkhart County 4-H Fair, scheduled for late July, could take place with attendees feeling safe and, potentially, with some safety measures being lifted.
“If we can get a majority of our county vaccinated, then come July, things look way more normal,” Wait said.
For now, Wait is concerned that some outbreak indicators have begun looking worse in the county. While the seven-day average for new cases per day has stayed between about 20 and 35 since Feb. 1 (the county peaked at more than 300 per day in November), there has been a recent increase in the seven-day average positive test rate, which has been stable at about 5 percent since Feb. 1 but is now at 7.2 percent. That indicator also peaked in November, at 24.5 percent.
Hospitalizations are also somewhat up. On March 3, Goshen Hospital had four COVID-19 inpatients and Elkhart General had one, marking the low point since the beginning of the pandemic. On Tuesday, Goshen Hospital had six and Elkhart General was up to 15. Those numbers are still far lower than in November and December, when the hospitals peaked at about 60 and 100 COVID-19 inpatients, respectively.
County residents continue to die, but at a much lower rate than in late 2020, when COVID-19 deaths peaked with an average of more than three deaths per day throughout November. Currently, the number of deaths per day is averaging just below 0.5, and there has been no recent surge. Health officials say 427 Elkhart County residents have died from COVID-19 in the past year, with the first death occurring on March 29.