Written by Amy Drake
St. Joseph County, Ind. — The St. Joseph County Health Department issued its mask order months and months ago. Probably the first county in the state to do so. It came on the heels of the Governor’s decision to open Indiana back up for business after the government-ordered shut down, and way before he issued his own state-wide mask mandate. We were told by our local authorities the mask rule would remain in effect until the level of immunity in our local population reached 70 percent. Well, I’ve got some good news. We’re almost there.As of Feb 18, the county had a total of 29,499 corona virus cases. Of course, that’s not total cases in the county. Many were missed because people were asymptomatic or chose not to test. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 1 in every 4.6 cases is reported. That means the number of cases we’ve had in our county is likely somewhere in the neighborhood of 135,695. Next, let’s look at vaccinations. In the last month or so, 35,081 people have already had a first vaccination. That means more than 170,000 people have either had the virus or been vaccinated, which is about 63 percent of our 272,000 population. To get to 70 percent, we have to be around 190,000. And, with vaccinations at a rate of about 950 per day, we will be there in no time. To be sure, there are still some who have not taken the suggested second dose; however, both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are said to be more than 92 percent effective after the first dose. Regardless, a second dose is only weeks away for most.
Herd immunity, also called community immunity, is defined by the CDC as “a situation in which a sufficient proportion of a population is immune to an infectious disease (through vaccination and/or prior illness) to make its spread from person to person unlikely.” Scientists have frequently said corona virus herd immunity could be reached between 60 and 70 percent. Some have even said the figure could be as low as 10 or 20 percent, due to past exposure to other corona viruses that cause the common cold.
Things are looking up in St. Joseph County, and that is something to celebrate. Since peaking in November, we are now way down in active cases, from about 4,000 to around 1,000. Hospitalizations, that were as high as 180, were at just 22 on the health department’s last summary report. Social gatherings that were limited by the state to 50 people have now been upped to 100. St. Joseph Hospital is allowing visitors again. The County-City building opened back up for business this week.
In the fall, the county council and commissioners passed a bill that would allow businesses to be fined for not enforcing masks in the workplace. At the time, the local health department’s Health Officer Robert Einterz sought to put no time limit on the ordinance. The county council, however, in good sense decided to put some limitations on the time frame, and said the mask ordinance would be revisited in April.
With this in mind, and herd immunity likely to be achieved by then, it is hoped that our legislative body will do the right thing and allow us to return to our regular lives this spring, without mandatory masks. By that time, it is hoped that the Governor will also do his part and drop the state-wide face covering rules. Of course, some people will hold onto their masks for added security, which is their right, but for the most part, we should be free to show our faces again and get back to business as usual. Our economy and our social lives certainly need it.
Even the Wall Street Journal ran a piece last week arguing that we will have herd immunity by April. Marty Makary, a doctor at Johns Hopkins, says in the piece: “Some medical experts privately agreed with my prediction that there may be very little Covid-19 by April but suggested that I not to talk publicly about herd immunity because people might become complacent and fail to take precautions or might decline the vaccine. But scientists shouldn’t try to manipulate the public by hiding the truth.”
What we absolutely cannot do is move goal posts again. It’s been a common occurrence since the dawning of covid, the most obvious one being: 15 days to slow the spread. Most definitely health authorities will bring up the threat of new variants. So far, we haven’t identified any in our county. How much they will further impact us, however, is an unknown, where the successes we are seeing right now in case drops are real and encouraging. Still others will warn about possible covid reinfection. Dr. Makary, though, argues that reinfections occur in less than one percent of patients, and those cases are not severe. We also need to watch how herd immunity is redefined. Dr. Anthony Fauci, now President Biden’s chief medical adviser, in December said herd immunity may now not be reached until 85 to 90 percent of people have had the virus. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization is encouraging people to achieve herd immunity for covid through vaccination rather than infection. In October, the WHO’s director-general said: “Herd immunity is a concept used for vaccination, in which a population can be protected from a certain virus if a threshold of vaccination is reached.” Hopefully, vaccination only will not become the new way our health officers define herd immunity. The Elkhart county health officer recently said restrictions are likely to stay in place until 70 percent of individuals in the county are vaccinated – -a statement she is now fortunately walking back.
And for the rest of us, it’s time to move forward — maskless. The pandemic has separated loved ones, crushed businesses, kept kids out of school and doubled county overdoses. Hope has finally returned. We can’t afford not to embrace it.
Amy Drake is a former journalist and speechwriter raising a family in Granger, Indiana.