Columnists

Holcomb on this ‘pandemic of the unvaccinated’

“Disastrous.”

That’s Indiana University -Northwest Economics Prof. Micah Pollak’s forecast for a second COVID perilous winter, mostly among the 50 percent of Hoosiers who are unvaccinated. Pollack added that that state and local leaders need to be “shouting from the rooftops” about the need for people to get vaccinated.

Gov. Eric Holcomb found himself facing the pandemic in February 2020. Last October, he told me that the only pandemic playbook on state government shelves was one for the flu.

After shutting the state down for nearly six weeks, then gradually reopening through the summer, Holcomb’s modus operandi was always to “manage” his way through the crisis. A year ago, Holcomb and nearly 7 million Hoosiers, appeared to be anticipating the vaccine developed and approved under the Trump administration.

Today, he is confronted with a fifth surge of patients filling up hospital ICUs, while about half of all Hoosiers have rejected taking the vaccine. At this writing, IU Health is appealing for National Guard deployment to help deal with this latest surge.

During my annual year-end interview with Holcomb, I observed: During 2020, you had the weekly Zoom press conferences, and you were given high marks for transparency and focus. After you gave what I call the “light at the end of the tunnel” speech in late March, you pulled back and stopped having them. You’re a graduate of the “Mitch Daniels School of Using Your Political Capital.” Why didn’t you barnstorm the state urging people to vaccinate and protect themselves and their communities?

“It was absolutely counter to what I heard as I got around the state,” Holcomb responded. “I don’t pretend to be a know-it-all or have a crystal ball. All I know is I was tethered to all 92 counties and what was going on on the ground. I’ll be in Fort Wayne tomorrow, I’ll be in Upland on Friday, I was in Oldenburg last Saturday. That is my focus group. Those interactions are what I hear. And what I heard when the vaccine came on the scene and we started having the ability to manage this ourselves and that is the answer. We absolutely have to make sure the resources are available as a state.”

Holcomb and state government did that. They provided three free vaccines, opening up hundreds of vaccination and testing sites. They’ve made boosters available. Yet the adult population is just above the 50 percent vaccination rate.

“When you look at about any measure, hospitalizations, death rates, it is all 70 percent to 80 percent unvaccinated, week after week after week,” Holcomb told me on Tuesday. “These stories are real that I pick up on a daily basis, people who are taken from us prematurely, who say, ‘I just didn’t think it would happen to me.’”

According to Indiana State Department of Health statistics, since the start of the pandemic, unvaccinated Hoosiers account for 97.7 percent of COVID-19 infections; 99.96 percent of COVID-19 hospitalizations; and 99.98 percent of COVID-19 deaths.

As for “breakthrough” cases involving the fully-vaccinated, the state reports 84,210 of them, or 2.4 percent of fully vaccinated people, with more than 80 percent of them among people 65 years old and older, resulting in 1,691 hospitalizations (.049 percent of the total) and 903 deaths (.026 percent of the total).

“Getting there, long way to go.” Holcomb said in extending the public health emergency for another 30 days. Holcomb now calls it a “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” adding, “I’m just shouting from the rooftop, ‘Get vaccinated.’ This is the answer.”

Gov. James Goodrich, who held office during the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918-19, played virtually no role in the government response to that pandemic which killed an estimated 10,000 Hoosiers. It was local health officials who mandated masking while suspending public gatherings.

While Gov. Goodrich confronted the 1918-19 pandemic with a hands-off approach, Holcomb has watched this pandemic claim more than 17,000 Hoosier lives, making it the most lethal health sequence in state history.

He has created the Governor’s Public Health Commission that will reassess what has happened over the past year and what changes should be made. “This coincides perfectly with one of the reasons that came out of this, we’ve gone decades without major attention on our local health departments, and the state and local health delivery models,” Holcomb said. “That’s what this Governor’s Public Health Commission is all about. It’s structure, delivery, funding.”

Now with the General Assembly overriding his vetoes last session and is poised to pass employer mandate bans in its upcoming session, Holcomb has decided to allow local health and school boards to determine masking policy.

I have a 9-month-old granddaughter and she’s the only one in our family who is unvaccinated. So we have this concept of “individual freedom” colliding with “personal responsibility” and half of the population doesn’t appear to care about the impact on their community. What are your thoughts on that?

“That’s the rub,” Holcomb said. “What do liberty and freedom mean when it affects others, adversely, maybe fatally? Those are the discussions we will have in these halls in our state, and I think rightly should be made in this state.”

The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com