INDIANAPOLIS — With Indiana's COVID-19 hospitalizations doubling in the past month, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb expressed frustration Tuesday at the "absurd" reasons some cite for refusing vaccinations, although he isn't offering any new state actions to combat the spread of the virus.
Many members of the Republican-dominated Legislature are set for a second year to push measures handcuffing anti-virus efforts — this time a bill forcing businesses to grant broad exemptions from workplace vaccination requirements that could be voted upon soon after the new legislative session starts in early January.
Indiana is approaching COVID-19 hospitalization levels not seen since this time a year ago before vaccines were widely available, with one health official saying the hospitalization peak could be a month away. Nevertheless, Holcomb is looking for lawmakers to approve administrative steps that he said would allow him to end Indiana's COVID-19 public health emergency, which he first declared in March 2020, despite many health experts arguing now is not the time.
Holcomb recalled during a Statehouse interview about a woman telling him that she was glad he opposed President Joe Biden's proposed vaccination mandates on large businesses, but also that she was disappointed Holcomb had received the COVID-19 vaccine because "I had a chip in me now."
"We deal with the absurd and we deal with facts and there's a lot in between there for people to form their own opinions," Holcomb told The Associated Press. "What I have to do is try to be persuasive enough so that folks understand that they're going to learn it the easy way or the hard way, unfortunately, by being vaccinated or not."
Holcomb received his first COVID-19 shot in March as a mass vaccination clinic opened at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and received a booster shot on Nov. 2. He has consistently encouraged vaccinations but has stepped back from highlighting state actions since ending his regular coronavirus news briefings in March.
Indiana hospitals were treating nearly 2,500 COVID-19 patients as of Sunday, a 106% one-month increase and a 25% one-week jump, according to state health department tracking. About one-quarter of those patients are in hospital intensive care units. The Indiana hospitalizations are almost as many as the September peak from the state's summer surge and within 1,000 of the late-2020 surge that threatened to overwhelm hospitals.
Indiana has the country's 11th lowest rate for fully vaccinated population at 51%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nine rural counties scattered around the state have vaccination rates below 40%.
Holcomb said the pandemic remains a real threat and is taking lives, but he maintains that the state's role is to provide vaccines and other resources, not impose vaccine requirements or mask mandates.
"It is, though, largely a pandemic of the unvaccinated and at some point, and we're there, individuals need to take responsibility for their lives," Holcomb said. "Unfortunately, their inactions have adverse consequences to others."
The state has been averaging about 25 COVID-19 deaths a day for the past month, down from the mid-40s in late September, as Indiana's pandemic death toll has topped 17,700.
Health experts were worried about fresh infection surges as people spend more time indoors even before identification of the omicron variant sparked new worldwide concerns.
Indiana Hospital Association President Brian Tabor said a crunch for health care workers and concerns about possible flu outbreaks are happening at a time when COVID-19 patients have been taking up what normally would have been some slack in the state's hospitals.
"We've just got to continue to message, not just the state but all of us, I think individually, to our friends, neighbors, everyone who is shown some hesitancy to get vaccinated," Tabor said. "The time is now and it's not just about contracting COVID, it's about making sure that there's a hospital bed for you or your loved one, no matter what."