Steve Long: After a year, we’re almost there

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We have reached the one-year anniversary of the public health emergency declaration in our state. That executive order on March 6, 2020, was followed just a few weeks later by the “stay-at-home” order on March 24. The entire world braced for the worst.

The shutdown last April wreaked economic devastation. Record-low unemployment one month was replaced by record-high unemployment the next. Stock markets imploded. Government stimulus in the trillions poured in to close the gap. The virus crept across the globe, devastating some areas, barely touching others. Locally, leaders of government, business, education, nonprofit, law enforcement, media and health care worked together to create a response that worked best for our county. One that balanced the very real threat of the disease with common-sense approaches to save as much of our local economy as possible.

In Hancock County, masks became the calling card of the pandemic, as did elbow bumps and awkward moments when we inadvertently invaded each other’s space. Thousands of face masks were created locally, and tens of thousands more were procured and distributed countywide. The Hancock County Health Department and Hancock Regional Hospital worked together to create exceptional access to COVID testing, with nearly 39,000 residents receiving almost 90,000 tests so far. Economic development officials took advantage of the massive move toward online shopping and procured more than $1B in investment in warehousing and distribution facilities, resulting in some of the largest distribution companies in the world choosing our county for new construction.

While our hearts break for those who experienced the worst of COVID, most of the residents of our county had remarkably little impact from the virus during the early phases of the pandemic. That all changed in late November, with the six weeks following Thanksgiving marking the surge that had been expected nine months earlier. Testing sites were overwhelmed with thousands of patients each week. More than half the beds in the hospital were filled with COVID-positive inpatients. An exceptional monoclonal antibody infusion center was rapidly created and processed more than 500 patients in six short weeks. And then the vaccine arrived.

The first vaccines were delivered to our county a few days before Christmas. Within weeks, health-care workers and first-responders were vaccinated. In the subsequent few months, nursing home residents and staff were inoculated and were soon joined by all county residents over the age of 80, then 70, then 60. Those over the age of 50 and people of all ages with serious medical conditions are now eligible as well. Nearly 500 vaccinations per day are being provided across our county in multiple locations with plans in place to double that number when the state receives additional supplies. To date, more than 17,000 citizens of Hancock County have received their initial dose of vaccine with more than 10,000 of those having received both doses.

With this good news, one might be tempted to think the pandemic is over and we can go back to normal life. While it is true that 10,000 people have achieved immunity via the vaccine and perhaps 16,000 have likely had the disease (double the official figure of nearly 8,000), that still leaves us 30,000 short of herd immunity. More than half the people in our county still have no immunity to the rapidly mutating, more infectious, coronavirus.

I believe we are mere months away from hosting mask-burning parties in our backyards. We have the capacity to vaccinate every eligible adult in our county by the end of summer, thus breaking the stranglehold the virus has on our lives. But we must all choose to get the shot.

The reasons not to join the party are rapidly declining. About 300 million people worldwide have received at least one injection, including 90 million in America, and more than a million in Indiana. Chances are you personally know multiple people who have received it. Side effects are minor, and effectiveness appears to be even better than originally thought. Medical professional societies have given their approval for almost all groups to get the shot, including reassurances that there is no known impact on fertility. Employers will be removing safety nets for sick leave usage when the vaccine is available to all. Airlines may require proof of immunity to travel, especially internationally. Mask-free social gatherings for those with immunity are already commencing. In short, the reasons to get the shot are mounting quickly, while the reasons to hesitate are diminishing.

Now is the time to make the decision to end the pandemic and get your shot as soon as it is available to you!

Steve Long is the president and CEO of Hancock Health.