INDIANAPOLIS – Gov. Eric Holcomb on Wednesday loosened quarantine rules for symptom-free students, teachers and staff in close contact with a positive COVID-19 case – but only if schools mandate masks.
The new approach provides a key incentive to districts struggling with the mask question while also not being a mandate. Fort Wayne Community Schools and Northwest Allen County Schools have mask requirements while East Allen County Schools and Southwest Allen County Schools have mask-optional policies.
Holcomb issued a new executive order running through September, and the Indiana Department of Health also issued a COVID-19 control measure. It says schools and day cares with mask requirements “consistently followed throughout the day” do not have to quarantine students, teachers and staff who are close contacts and aren't showing COVID-19 symptoms.
But they still must do contact tracing of the cases by notifying their local health department as well as parents, teachers and staff who were in close contact.
The control measure says close contacts can continue to attend school if all adults and students in the classroom correctly and consistently wear well-fitting masks the entire time. If symptoms appear, the person should leave school, get tested and isolate.
The exception to quarantine applies only in the classroom setting and does not apply to extracurriculars and athletics, for example.
“That is good news,” NACS Superintendent Chris Himsel said when briefed on the basics. “We want kids in school.”
FWCS reacted similarly.
“This change in quarantine guidelines is a welcome relief and a recognition of what we have seen in terms of spread in the classroom,” FWCS spokeswoman Krista Stockman said by email. “The limited amount of spread we have seen so far this year can typically be traced back to lunch time or athletic activities when masks are not worn.”
Along with reducing the burden on nursing and administrative staff to track and monitor quarantined students, the guidelines allow more students to stay in school, where learning is most effective, Stockman said.
“For example,” she said, “Lane's sixth-grade class was not sent to remote learning last week because of a high number of positive cases but because of a high number of quarantines. This change makes that scenario much less likely.”
NACS returned to a mask mandate Wednesday. Under the mask-optional policy, the 8,100-student district had 181 confirmed student and employee cases within the first 14 school days. That's 36.6% of the 495 cases last academic year.
The infections at NACS have led to more than 12% of students being ill or quarantined through the first 14 days. The district had about 30 students in quarantine test positive as a result of a close contact at school – a rarity under last year's mask mandate, Himsel said.
People generally cooperated with the return of masks at NACS, although some people protested at Carroll and Bethel roads, Himsel said. He noted students who refused to mask up went home.
The EACS board hasn't discussed or made decisions pertaining to the new executive order, spokeswoman Tamyra Kelly said by email.
Holcomb also issued more guidance for hospitals as the delta surge continues to plague medical providers with capacity and staff shortages.
Elsewhere in the order, he reinstituted a work search requirement for Hoosiers to consider receiving temporary assistance for needy families, also known as welfare; and a one-week waiting period on unemployment claims.
The statewide COVID-19 confirmed case count increased by 4,822 on Wednesday, continuing an upward trend and bringing the total to 863,299, the Indiana Department of Health said.
It also announced 29 COVID-19 deaths, which occurred between Aug. 19 and Tuesday.
With 328 new cases, Allen County saw its highest one-day increase since Jan. 10, when 479 were reported, according to the local health department. There were no new deaths.
Daily case counts have averaged about 250 in the last seven days. At that pace, Allen County is on track to reach 50,000 total confirmed COVID-19 cases in about three days; the tally stood at 49,348 on Wednesday.
Mayor Tom Henry is expected to make an announcement about Fort Wayne's response to the pandemic at 11 a.m. today.
With respect to health care systems, Holcomb is now requiring hospitals to report diversion information to the state to help monitor resources and capacity statewide. Diversion is when a hospital turns away Hoosiers because they can't care for them.
Holcomb said earlier in the day he wouldn't call for any “draconian measures” – such as a statewide halt of elective procedures. Instead, he still leaves that up to individual hospitals.
The Indiana Department of Insurance will issue bulletins extending prior authorizations for non-emergent procedures that are postponed due to capacity or staffing issues because of COVID-19, and it will direct insurers to enable hospitals to expedite transporting patients out of hospital care to the next appropriate setting.
At a glance
Eligible fully vaccinated residents by county:
Adams: 10,302 (36.7%)
Allen: 171,309 (54.4%)
DeKalb: 15,277 (41.6%)
Huntington: 14,435 (46%)
Kosciusko: 27,709 (41.3%)
LaGrange: 7,739 (24.8%)
Noble: 16,138 (40.2%)
Steuben: 13,783 (45.7%)
Wabash: 10,974 (40.7%)
Wells: 10,097 (42.5%)
Whitley: 13,005 (44.9%)
Source: Indiana Department of Health