Home LIFESTYLE Local health officials are optimistic about COVID. Here’s why.

Local health officials are optimistic about COVID. Here’s why.

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Christian Sheckler
South Bend Tribune, Ind.

A streak of good news over the past week about COVID-19 vaccines has local health officials feeling optimistic about achieving widespread immunity this summer.

The St. Joseph County Health Department Monday began offering 1,000 doses per day at its vaccination clinic at St. Hedwig Memorial Center, doubling its volume.

After Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine got emergency authorization this week, the University of Notre Dame announced it would host a two-day “mass inoculation” event to distribute thousands of doses of the vaccine later this month.

State health officials unexpectedly opened vaccine registration Tuesday morning to people 55 to 59 years old.

With production ramping up, Indiana’s allotment of vaccine increased by about 50% this week, and the Biden administration announced late Tuesday it expected enough doses for every American adult by the end of May.

That all makes Dr. Mark Fox, St. Joseph County’s deputy health officer, feel “pretty good” about the prospect of life looking much closer to normal within a few months.

“I’m certainly hopeful that by sometime this summer, people will feel comfortable interacting much more normally; having dinner parties with friends who are also vaccinated is a real possibility,” Fox said. “I’m not saying Notre Dame Stadium is going to be full come this fall, but there will be a lot more opportunity for normal interaction.”

More than 41,000 people in St. Joseph County had received their first dose of vaccine as of Tuesday, and almost 23,000 more had been fully vaccinated. Fox said about two-thirds of those eligible in the county had received at least one dose, prior to the state extending eligibility to everyone 55 and up.

On Monday, the first day the health department had 1,000 doses available, the St. Hedwig clinic vaccinated about 710 people, Fox said, but all the available slots for Tuesday filled up shortly after those 55 and older were allowed to register.

Fox said he did not expect to keep running a surplus of doses as word gets out about the availability of more appointments at the clinic.

In Elkhart County, the health department is getting about 1,500 doses of vaccine from the state, up from just 400 a week at the beginning of the year, said Dr. Bethany Wait, the county’s health officer. Wait said demand remains high, with appointments booked three weeks in advance.

“Probably by the end of May we could be looking at the general public if the supplies last,” Wait said, “and open it up to anybody who wants it.”

Wait said the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be a “game changer,” not only because the single dose can vaccinate more people faster, but also because it is more shelf-stable. Because it can go hours without refrigeration, the vaccine will be able to reach people through mobile clinics and the “mass inoculation” events the state announced Tuesday.

The Notre Dame clinic will run March 26 and 27 at Compton Family Ice Arena, with appointments available between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Fox said the event could vaccinate 4,000 people each day.

The state announced similar events at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Ivy Tech Community College campus in Sellersburg.

As for the efficacy of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, health officials pointed to research that found the shot to be about 70% effective in preventing COVID-19 altogether. Of the trial participants who contracted the disease, about 15% had severe symptoms, and none went to the hospital or died.

“If we had a flu vaccine that was that effective every year, we’d be thrilled,” Fox said. “So it’s better than the flu vaccine at preventing the full spectrum of the disease, and when it comes to the outcomes that really matter, hospitalizations and deaths, it’s the same as the other vaccines.’

Micah Pollak, an economics professor at Indiana University Northwest who has tracked data on the state’s COVID vaccination efforts, said the introduction of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine helped the state get about 192,000 new doses in all this week, 50% more than the state’s allocation last week.

If the state keeps getting resupplied at that rate, it could vaccinate 80% of its population — a figure sometimes used as a conservative measure for “herd immunity” — by August, Pollak said.

Pollak said Indiana’s vaccine distribution late last month hit its lowest point in weeks, as severe winter weather stalled shipments and kept people at home. But vaccinations quickly ramped up again after the slowdown.

“We’ve come back with a vengeance,” he said, “and this week we’re going to see record-breaking numbers of shots in arms.”

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