Marion County begins easing some coronavirus restrictions starting Friday; officials say data going in right direction


INDIANAPOLIS — It’s been two months and a day since Indianapolis began taking an economic and social beating from the coronavirus that began with the cancellation of the Big Ten basketball tournament on March 12, just minutes before a noontime tipoff between the University of Michigan and Rutgers University.

Since that time, hundreds of millions of dollars in convention and sports-related revenues have been lost, downtown has at times looked like a ghost town, at least 440 Marion County residents have died from COVID-19 and tens of thousands of Indianapolis employees have been thrown out of work.

Beginning this weekend, Marion County will start to crawl out from its springtime coronavirus hibernation.

“Starting on May 15th, this Friday, we will be moving restrictions on in-person public gatherings, including religious services, from ten people to 25 people,” said Mayor Joe Hogsett during a morning briefing with reporters.

“We will be allowing for the qualified reopening of non-essential retail outlets at 50% capacity. We will also be allowing for the qualified opening of shopping malls subject to restrictions on capacity and food service.”

Hogsett said come Memorial Day Weekend it will be safe to go out and dine in Indianapolis.

“Starting Friday, May 22nd, we will be permitting in-person dining at restaurants, but only in outdoor seating and with strict social distancing guidelines.”

If all goes well, while expanded dining opportunities could go into effect June 1, the mayor said not everyone will be going back to work next week in Marion County.

“Non-essential industrial and manufacturing must remain closed. Personal services such as hair and nail salons must also remain closed.”

Marion County Public Health Director Dr. Virginia Caine said positive data tracking the spread of the coronavirus virus throughout Indianapolis led her to recommend a cautious reopening of the county.

“By looking at a set of benchmarks, from testing to contact tracing, from emergency room department visits and mortality, we can show that Marion County is headed in the right direction,” she said. “We’ve seen a decrease in emergency visits or runs, and from surveillance we know that we’re not seeing an increase right now in COVID-19 cases.

“We look to see if there is a decrease in the number of COVID-19-related hospitalizations. Most importantly we look for a decrease in the percent of positive COVID-19 tests, and based on all these multiple benchmarks…we’ve been able to be able to monitor our progress to date that allowed us to go to a modified Phase II.”

Caine cited statistics that showed Marion County’s original testing regimen topped out at the beginning of last month with a daily average of approximately 45% of those people tested April 9 coming back positive, and that number has decreased to a daily average of nearly 30% in the last week.

Numbers published by the Indiana State Department of Health showed that on April 9, 32% of the daily tests reported administered in Marion County were positive and overall 21.2% of the county residents tested over the proceeding weeks came back positive, a cumulative statistic that has stayed consistent for more than five weeks.

Daily positive testing statistics in Marion County have ranged from a high of 90% on April 23 to 14.3% today.

According to ISDH reporting, Marion County has averaged 147 positive tests per day based on an average of 809 tests administered each day in the last week.

Caine said for Marion County to gain a permanent upper-hand over the coronavirus, officials would need to conduct between 1,500 and 2,200 tests per day and achieve a contact tracing rate of 75% to 95% to map the spread of the virus and curb the infection.

According to Caine, Marion County’s average seven-day totals for positive cases have increased to 200 cases daily up from 130 cases daily in late April.

“These new cases that we’re picking up now [are] a lot of our background cases that have been in our community, so you have to try to delineate what are the true number of cases,” she said.

Last month’s daily Marion County test numbers may be skewed as state health officials reported on four different dates a total of 1,429 tests were subtracted from the county’s total due to what the Marion County Public Health Department said were clerical or county of residence errors.

Caine also cited a decreasing mortality rate as proof the Marion County is making progress in slowing the spread of the virus.

The average daily death toll in Marion County, as reported by the state health department, from April 22 to April 28 was 11.

The average daily toll in Marion County, as reported by the state health department, from May 2 and May 8 was 9.

“We will have to critically monitor this data over the next two weeks to see whether we’re able to maintain no significant increases in our cases by looking at our four benchmarks,” said Caine. “But of course, if our benchmarks show we are showing a significant increase in our cases, we will have to revert and move back to Stage One. We’re very hopeful. We like the direction that we’re going.”

“If the data starts to show that there will be an uptick, then we’ll have to make adjustments accordingly,” said the mayor. “There will be some in the community who say that we’re moving too slowly. There will probably be many in the community who might think we’re moving too fast. But I want to make it clear, we are moving as the data drives us to move. These are not decisions made on the basis of public opinion. These are decisions made on the basis of public health.”

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