Bartholomew County health officials are urging people to get the updated COVID-19 boosters targeting the most common omicron strains, warning of the potential for another winter spike in coronavirus cases and a “busier” flu season.
Their hope is that the new boosters will help stave off a repeat of the previous two winters, when surges in COVID-19 infections pushed the local health care system to its limits.
At least 2,560 COVID-19 booster shots have been given to Bartholomew County residents since federal regulators gave the updated boosters the green light at the beginning of September, according to the most recent figures from the Indiana Department of Health. That amounts to about 3% of Bartholomew County’s total population.
Nearly 24,500 Bartholomew County residents have yet to get any doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It is concerning,” said Columbus Regional Health spokeswoman Kelsey DeClue. “…There’s a little bit of fear that people are maybe overlooking (the booster) for many factors, either feeling like they don’t need to worry about it, or they’ve had COVID and so they feel like they have that natural immunity, or they’re tired of keeping up with the new rollouts and keeping up with the information as it changes.”
Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that anyone ages 5 years and up receive one does of the new boosters after completing their primary series. The updated shots are meant to provide a boost of protection against the original strain of COVID-19 and the BA.5 variant that is dominant around the world, The Associated Press reported.
The vaccines and boosters are available at local pharmacies, the Bartholomew County Health Department and CRH physician’s offices.
The Bartholomew County Health Department has administered over 200 doses of the new COVID-19 boosters, said Amanda Organist, the department’s director of nursing.
“We’re always concerned about the various illnesses that circulate,” Organist said, referring to COVID-19, influenza and other respiratory illnesses. “We hope that individuals will remember to practice good hand hygiene and stay home when they are ill, as always.”
The concern from local officials comes as the pandemic has faded from the forefront of many people’s minds across the nation. Daily deaths and infections are dropping and people — most of them maskless — are returning to schools, work and grocery stores as normal.
At the same time, federal health officials are bracing for a spike in cases this winter. The Biden administration said Thursday that the COVID-19 public health emergency will continue through at least Jan. 11.
Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 coordinator, told The Associated Press that if more Americans get the updated vaccines, “we could save hundreds of lives each day this winter.” More than 330 people die on average each day of COVID-19, according to CDC data, with the U.S. death toll standing at over 1.05 million.
Only about 11.5 million Americans have received the updated shots, with federal officials, including Jha, acknowledging the slower pace of vaccinations, saying, “we expected September to be a month where it would just start picking up,” according to wire reports.
Last year, COVID-19 hospitalizations at CRH started to steadily increase in mid-November before peaking at 70 on Jan. 17, the highest daily total for coronavirus hospitalizations so far during the pandemic, according to hospital records. In 2020, local coronavirus hospitalizations started rising in mid-October and surged to 59 by Dec. 2, 2020, which was a record at the time.
“There is an obvious concern for a rise in cases, or potentially another surge in the upcoming months,” said Bartholomew County Health Officer Dr. Brian Niedbalski, who added at least 25 of his patients have received the updated boosters. “…We have seen surges around this time in the last two years. This is the peak for most respiratory viral illnesses.”
Last winter, CRH was at its most overwhelmed point of the pandemic so far as officials struggled to handle a flood of patients amid the worst coronavirus wave in a year, which they said at the time had “severely put at risk” their ability to care for patients.
At times this past winter, patients at CRH were placed in beds along hallways as staff wait for rooms to become available. The hospital also converted a first floor main hallway into a spill-over triage area to treat less severe patients and turned its outpatient cath lab into a spillover intensive care unit.
And as resources became increasingly strained, officials were forced to prioritize severely ill patients and delayed some surgeries. CRH also recorded its highest inpatient headcount in the hospital’s 104-year history.
In 2020, CRH briefly reached full capacity during a winter surge after 60 staff members were out quarantining or in isolation while hospitalizations soared to previously unseen heights.
While COVID-19 has been impossible to predict, officials still anticipate some sort of rise in COVID-19 cases this winter as people spend more time indoors and travel and gather with family during the holiday season. But only time will tell how severe the increase is.
“We do still expect just by nature of people coming inside, people getting together more, your immune system can tend to get a little suppressed over the winter, and so we do expect to see a rise (in COVID-19 transmission) because of all that,” DeClue added. “…We’re also concerned because we’re staying consistently busy at CRH, and so are the surrounding hospitals.”
But as colder weather approaches, local officials say that they are seeing growing complacency with the pandemic among the public and do not anticipate a significant increase in demand for the boosters or vaccines, even as COVID-19 continues to kill people in the Columbus area.
Over the past month, the virus has killed two Jennings County residents, one Bartholomew County resident and one Jackson County resident, according to state records. A total of 252 people in Bartholomew County have died from COVID-19 since the virus swept across the planet in spring 2020.
“Of course, as we move further along in this COVID-19 world, more complacency is encountered in general terms,” Niedbalski said. “Some people may be holding out a little bit longer than others (to get their boosters), but I don’t expect to see a significant uptick in vaccination rates.”