ELKHART — Elkhart County’s coronavirus-related restrictions will likely remain in place until 70 percent of residents have been vaccinated, according to County Health Officer Dr. Bethany Wait.
In a statement released Tuesday, Wait said she does “not anticipate the Elkhart County COVID-19 mitigation directives being modified or lifted until the Elkhart County adult population reaches 70 percent vaccinated.” As of Monday, about 2 percent of Elkhart County’s total population had received the two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine required to be fully vaccinated.
“While the Elkhart County Health Department is not mandating COVID-19 vaccinations, we do strongly encourage everyone who is eligible to get their vaccination. Our goal as a community should be acquiring 70 percent adult vaccination levels as this is the only way for our community to truly move forward,” Wait said.
ECHD spokesperson Melanie Sizemore said the department does not know when the county will hit 70 percent since, “There are a lot of factors that determine that outcome.”
Included in the county’s public health order are a mask mandate, requirements of businesses and organizations to create and adhere to COVID-19 safety plans, and the requirement that safety plans be submitted to and pre-approved by the county for gatherings of 25 people or more.
That could cause problems for events like the Elkhart Jazz Festival or the 4-H Fair that were canceled last year but that organizers hope to bring back in 2021. The county is encouraging organizers of events to submit a safety plan and work with the Health Department to still be able to hold events before restrictions are lifted, according to Elkhart Mayor Rod Roberson’s spokesperson, Corinne Straight-Reed, who was at a meeting Wednesday with Wait, county leaders and event organizers.
The Mayor’s Office sees Wednesday’s announcement as a clear path forward on how restrictions can be lifted, Straight-Reed said.
“The mayor’s reaction is definitely that we’ve got a lot of work to do. We have a long way to go until we get to 70 percent, and we know that. But we are hopeful that as soon as we can get the vaccine rolling out, we will be well on our way,” she said.
The public reaction to Wait’s announcement was less positive. On The Elkhart Truth’s Facebook page, some argued that the policy was a way of taking the population hostage to force people who do not want to get vaccinated to do so anyway.
“It’s not a threat. It’s really nothing other than the reality that we are faced with,” Straight-Reed said. “I think a lot of where that is coming from is that we’re all impatient and we had a lot of high hopes for 2021.”
No business or other organization has been fined for violating the county’s COVID-19 restrictions that were introduced in November, according to Wait. The county adopted a fine structure in December.
“The public health orders and community effort is working and we are seeing our positivity rate lower, our death rate lower, our hospitalization rate lower and vaccination numbers increase,” she said.
As of Monday, Elkhart County’s seven-day average for new infections hit 35 per day, which – not counting Monday – is the lowest point since mid-September, and about 10 times less than when the local outbreak peaked in mid-November. There were 29 deaths reported deaths in January though more may still be reported, which is three timers fewer than in November.
Elkhart General Hospital and Goshen Hospital had a combined 29 COVID-19 inpatients Tuesday, down from a high of about 150. The seven-day average positive test rate is down to 7.7 percent, from a high of 24.5 percent on Nov. 12.
Wait said the improvements do not mean residents can take it easy.
“Please understand that we are not out of the woods and that in order to maintain and continue to improve these numbers the public health orders will need to remain in place and the public will need to continue following the COVID-19 mitigation directives,” she said.
Last week, Elkhart County’s COVID-19 advisory level was downgraded from red, which is the most severe, to orange. Monday, Gov. Eric Holcomb’s new executive order on what a county’s color code means for restrictions went into effect. Below is an outline, provided by the Elkhart County Health Department, of what each advisory level and the continuing local health orders mean for restrictions in Elkhart County.
Any color: Gatherings with a total attendance not exceeding 25 may occur without an approved COVID-19 safety plan so long as the remaining mitigation directives are followed.
Red or orange: Gatherings with a total attendance exceeding 25 may occur with an approved COVID-19 safety plan, up to 25 percent of a facility’s capacity, so long as the remaining mitigation directives (including sufficient space for six-foot social distancing by individuals outside of the same household) are followed.
Yellow: Gatherings or meetings and special or seasonal events with a total attendance exceeding 25 may occur with an approved COVID-19 safety plan, up to 50 percent of a facility’s capacity, so long as the remaining mitigation directives are followed.
Blue: Gatherings with a total attendance exceeding 25 may occur with an approved COVID-19 safety plan, up to 100 percent of a facility’s capacity, so long as the remaining mitigation directives are followed.