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Holcomb, health officials give update as state battles surge in COVID-19

Gov. Holcomb extended the public health emergency as the omicron variant spreads, causing COVID-19 tests to be in short supply and overwhelming hospitals.

INDIANAPOLIS — As the omicron variant rapidly spread across the state, leaving hospitals once again overwhelmed, Gov. Eric Holcomb and state health officials met Wednesday to update the public on how they plan to address the spread and to highlight roadblocks, specifically a shortage in COVID-19 tests, that Hoosiers should be aware of. 

There was a lot to unpack from Wednesday's update. Here's some key takeaways for you and your family. 

The omicron variant is in Indiana. The first omicron case in Indiana was discovered just 11 days ago.

According to state health leaders, delta is still the dominant variant among Indiana's COVID-19 cases, but that's expected to shift quickly because of how contagious omicron is shaping up to be.

Citing the CDC, Dr. Kristina Box, Indiana's health commissioner, said even those who are fully vaccinated and have their booster can spread the omicron variant, even if they show no symptoms.

"As the omicron variant sweeps across the U.S., it is more important than ever that people use the tools available to reduce the spread of COVID-19. We have the tools in ample supply — masks, hand hygiene, staying home if you're sick and getting vaccinated and boosted," said Box.

The state also announced it is receiving more therapeutics to treat COVID, but in limited supply.

The anti-viral drug from Merck, Molnupiravir, just got emergency use authorization from the FDA. It is used to treat mild to moderate COVID symptoms in people 18 and older. To get it, people will need to have tested positive for COVID, be at high-risk of serious illness and have a doctor's prescription.

Almost 5,000 courses of the drug arrived Thursday at select CVS and Walmart stores across the state. Those locations will be announced Thursday on the state's website.

Pfizer's antiviral pills, Paxlovid, are also available for high-risk patients ages 12 and older. Just over 1,000 treatments went to hospitals across Indiana but are also in short supply.

AstraZenaca's monoclonal antibody treatment, Evusheld, has gone out to transplant centers and will soon be available at cancer centers. This treatment is for patients 12 and older who have a compromised immune system because of a medical condition or immunosuppressant medicines. Right now, it's also in limited supply, with about 1,000 doses being delivered this week.

"There is simply not enough medicine to go around right now, and do not bank on being able to get a therapeutic when you need it," said Dr. Lindsay Weaver, the state's chief medical officer. "It will take time to increase supplies and distribute these treatments, and none of them are 100% effective. Vaccines remain our number one defense at preventing severe illness."

Finally, when it comes to your kids heading back to school in 2022, there's no official new guidance on quarantining from the CDC. The state will hold a webinar Thursday with school officials, school nurses and local health departments to discuss what could come next with the impending surge of the highly-contagious omicron variant.

According to state health leaders, COVID cases in school-aged children are at the highest level they've been at in months.

State public health emergency

On Wednesday, Holcomb announced he has signed an extension of the state's public health emergency and emergency orders. 

He emphasized that "considering the impact" COVID-19 is having right now in the state, this "shouldn't come as a surprise." However, he said he's working with the Legislature and leadership to take action that he says will allow him to end these orders. 

RELATED: Gov. Holcomb willing to lift COVID-19 public health emergency if lawmakers agree to 3 things

School quarantines

On Monday, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials cut isolation restrictions for asymptomatic Americans who catch the coronavirus from 10 to five days, and similarly shortened the time that close contacts need to quarantine. 

"The CDC plans to come out with additional school guidance for K-12 sometime in the near future. We know our kids are going back to school on Monday, so, basically, we will have a seminar... tomorrow with school nurses and also with our local health departments and be rolling out our recommendations based on the [CDC's] recommendations for quarantine and isolations," Box said. 

COVID tests in short supply

Meanwhile, the rise in omicron has put a strain on the state's supply of COVID-19 tests. 

Box said due to a national shortage, the state is only guaranteed 11,000 tests. The state's health leaders are working to acquire more. But in the meantime, they ask Hoosiers to be patient while waiting in line at testing sites and to not go to the emergency rooms to get tested. Weaver said this just further strains an already-overwhelmed health care system. 

Indiana hospitalizations and fatigue within the health care industry

Weaver explained the current total hospital census is the highest it has been in five years. 

"We're over 1,000 patients higher than we were last year," Weaver said. 

She said patients are being held in emergency rooms for hours and sometimes days until a bed is available. Weaver also said, "Patients are being cared for in hallways and waiting rooms." 

To address this issue, the state health department has deployed six-person teams to dozens of hospitals to help with operations. But state leaders said they fear this is not enough — fatigue within hospital staff is leading to widespread staffing shortages within the health care industry. 

RELATED: IU Health reports 'all-time high' number of COVID patients being treated

RELATED: IU Health requests assistance from Indiana National Guard as hospitalizations reach all-time high

Box said she's remaining positive that this profession will recover from the pandemic, but it will take time. And right now, health care professionals are more necessary than ever. 

What leaders say you can do to help

Box pleaded to the public to help Indiana's health care professionals by wearing masks, getting tested and getting vaccinated. 

If you've already checked all these boxes, Holcomb said there's more that you can do to help. 

"If you've gotten vaccinated and got your booster, that's not all that you can do. If you can appeal to a person that's skeptical about the vaccine and its efficacy, please do that. You could make the difference in someone else's family's future," Holcomb said. "Equip folks with compelling evidence. The [best] way to get through this... is to get vaccinated." 

"The next several weeks to a month are going to be difficult. We need to all do what we can and try to communicate with our friends and families to try and get them on board," Holcomb continued. 

RELATED: CDC's shorter isolation period to ease burden on short-staffed industries, experts say

Latest Indiana COVID-19 numbers

On Wednesday, the Indiana State Department of Health reported 4,305 more Hoosiers are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, bringing the total number of people vaccinated in Indiana to 3,549,956. 

The number of people getting booster shots is also going up across the state amid the omicron variant surge. ISDH said there were 20,134 booster doses administered Tuesday, bringing the total number to 1,342,036.

ISDH updated the most recent COVID-19 cases and deaths on Dec. 27 at 11:59 p.m. There were 5,815 new positive cases reported between Dec. 26-27 and 170 additional deaths that happened between Dec. 16-27.

As of Monday night, there have been 1,227,005 positive cases of COVID-19 in Indiana and 18,280 deaths from the virus since the start of the pandemic.

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