ELKHART — The Indiana State Department of Health is boosting the availability of COVID-19 vaccines in Elkhart this week, and health officials hope to better reach minorities and others who may be hesitant to get vaccinated.
The number of COVID-19 vaccines available in Elkhart County will significantly increase this week, as a pop-up clinic at Elkhart’s Tolson Center offers about 540 doses per day Tuesday through Friday.
The county is administering an average of 877 doses per day, so if the regular vaccination sites in the county keep up their regular pace, the 540 extra doses will account for an increase of about 60 percent on those four days.
The pop-up clinic was not initially supposed to allow walk-ups, but given an increase in the vaccine supply, that decision was changed, making it easier for people to get vaccinated on the spot.
Elkhart County Health Officer Dr. Bethany Wait, along with other community leaders and an Indiana State Department of Health representative, held a news conference Tuesday morning at the Elkhart Housing Authority, next door to the Tolson Center.
Wait said Elkhart County is not to a point where the vaccine supply has outpaced the demand to get vaccinated. Still, officials recognize that vaccine hesitancy remains in the county and are encouraging hesitant residents to get immunized.
Wait said Tuesday was the one-year anniversary of her being admitted to the intensive care unit due to her severe COVID-19 case.
While most of the 709,455 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Indiana did not result in death, the state had 12,826 COVID-19 deaths as of Monday. Of those, 432 were Elkhart County residents.
“I survived, and I was one of the lucky ones, but we have plenty of Hoosiers that didn’t,” Wait said. “Get your vaccine, don’t be afraid. It will protect you, it will protect all of us, and we can move forward.”
Vaccination rates for minorities are lower than for whites, according to ISDH data. While 6.1 percent of Elkhart County’s population is Black or African American, 3.3 percent of residents who are fully vaccinated are Black or African American. And though Hispanics and Latinos make up 16.8 percent of the county population, 6.9 percent of fully vaccinated residents are Hispanic or Latino. About 89.5 percent of Elkhart County residents are white, and 87 percent of fully vaccinated residents are white. The percent of fully vaccinated residents whose race was listed as other or unknown was 5.1 and 3.5, respectively.
In total, 38,016 county residents are now fully vaccinated, translating to 24.3 percent of residents who are 16 or older.
“We’ve got challenges in our community, relative to Black and Brown people within it actually getting the shot in their arms,” Elkhart Mayor Rod Roberson said.
The Tolson Center is located in Elkhart’s South Central neighborhood, which is one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods. The mayor said mobile clinics like the one at Tolson this week are an important way to make it easier for minorities to get vaccinated.
Roberson, who is African American, received his first dose in February and said Tuesday that he had his “liberation day” – meaning that he is fully vaccinated – a few weeks ago. He has been public about getting immunized, in part, because he might be better suited than most to get the word out to minorities.
“I know that in African American and Latino communities, Black and Brown communities, that it becomes difficult for multiple reasons. Believe me, I’m a part of that community, I understand that. But what’s important is that we do our part,” he said when he was first vaccinated.
ISDH Deputy Health Commissioner Pam Pontones said the vaccine offered at the Tolson Center this week is the two-dose Pfizer vaccine and that ISDH will be back in May to administer the second dose. People who go to ISDH mobile clinics will never be asked about their residence status, proof of residence or social security number. They will be asked to provide their name and date of birth. Getting vaccinated is free.
“Pfizer vaccine, along with other vaccines, are safe and effective vaccines that are one of the most important tools that we have to combat this pandemic. Getting vaccinated not only protects you, it protects your community, it protects the ones you love so that we can get back to what we know and love,” Pontones said.
She said the recent pause of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine shows that authorities are keeping a watchful eye on each type of vaccine and will pull them if there is an indication that they are unsafe. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was paused after six people, of the 6.8 million who had received the vaccine, had a rare type of blood clot. One woman died. The CDC said Monday that federal health officials are investigating “a handful” of new, unconfirmed reports to determine whether they may be cases of the same disorder.
Most vaccination sites still require appointments ahead of time, but Wait said she was excited that walk-up appointments are now becoming possible.
“We finally have the supply that we need to get this done. The state graciously is bringing these vaccines to our county because they see that we need them, so I encourage everyone to come out,” Wait said.
Roberson said allowing walk-ups will effectively make vaccines available to more people.
“There are certain communities that just don’t do well when it comes to advance registration, so that’s why walk-ups are so important,” he said. “We’re very excited about how well we can do over the course of a week and getting people, especially where we’re sitting right now – we’re sitting at the heart of one of the most diverse areas in Elkhart – so we should have a good take rate.”
Infections on the rise
Two of the new and more contagious coronavirus variants were found in Elkhart County in March, and COVID-19 cases are on the rise. Elkhart County’s seven-day average for new infections is now at 62 per day, three times more than the March 1 average of 20.
The county’s positive test rate, which runs a week behind, also has increased. It hovered around 5 percent in February but is now at 10.7 percent. That means the county’s COVID-19 advisory level should move from the second-least severe “yellow” to the second-most severe “orange” on Wednesday, resulting in capacity limits at events and social gatherings being tightened from 50 percent to 25 percent of normal capacity.
There has been a total of 27,376 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Elkhart County residents since March 2020, while 38,016 county residents are now fully vaccinated. That translates to 24.3 percent of residents who are 16 or older.
Deaths continue to occur much more rarely than before vaccines became widely available. In the last 30 days, six Elkhart County residents died from COVID-19. In November, the month when Elkhart County had the most COVID-19 deaths, 114 residents died due to the disease, according to ISDH.