The Indiana Department of Health reported 502 additional confirmed deaths over the last week. That brings the state’s total to 8,613 confirmed deaths. The state also reported more than 37,500 new cases in the last week.
Since moving to Stage 5 of its reopening plan on Sept. 26, the state has reported 446,286 positive cases and 5,223 confirmed deaths – 79.1 percent of the state’s total positive cases and 60.6 percent of deaths for the entire pandemic.
Here are your statewide COVID-19 headlines from last week.
Indiana officials defended the state’s rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine while announcing more Hoosiers can soon schedule appointments.
Indiana has used less than half of the total vaccine doses it’s received so far. But Department of Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Lindsay Weaver said many more appointments are scheduled through the end of January and no vaccine will be wasted.
On Friday, Hoosiers age 80 and older began scheduling vaccination appointments. Those who haven’t yet can do so at OurShot.in.gov or by calling 211.
The state will eventually allow Hoosiers age 70 and older – then 60 and older – to also schedule appointments. Gov. Eric Holcomb described that likely timeline as “weeks, not months.”
The first day of vaccine registrations for Hoosiers 80 and older was marked by slowdowns and technical issues. The problems are similar to other states, and experts say that goes back to public health funding and technology.
The Indiana Department of Health announced increased wait times for both its online and 211 phone registration for vaccines. That’s pretty similar to issues experienced by Los Angeles County and several counties in Florida.
Registration opened to Hoosiers age 80 and older on Friday, which represents about 4 percent of the population.
“We anticipated these scenarios on the first day and have a system in place to address them as quickly as possible,” said Dr. Kris Box, Indiana state health commissioner, in a statement.
School leaders in Indiana are making plans for their staff to get vaccinated for COVID-19. In some counties, initial doses have already become available for teachers, while others are still waiting without much information about when they'll get their shot.
Some teachers in Evansville and in Knox County have already received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and are among the first educators to do so in the state. Local school leaders said it's because the hospitals or local health departments reached out to let them know they had some available that needed to be used.
Logansport School Corporation Superintendent Michele Starkey said none of her staff have yet received the vaccine, but the local health department will start working through a waitlist of teachers who sign up to receive any doses that may become available.
She and her staff are eager to know more about when the vaccine will be more widely available.
"As we start to get people vaccinated and that kind of stuff then we're going to feel a lot more confident and comfortable doing more in school, because it is so important," she said.
Indiana will host all of this year’s NCAA March Madness men’s tournaments following discussions with state and local officials about logistics and health concerns.
It follows what professional leagues – including the NBA – have done to continue competing during the pandemic. The NCAA canceled March Madness last year due to COVID-19. Indianapolis was already set to host this year’s Final Four in the Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament.
With the ongoing pandemic, the NCAA decided one geographic location would be used to reduce the potential spread of the virus.
While most games will be at four venues in Indianapolis, some early games will be played in Bloomington and West Lafayette.
Over the holidays, the federal government signed a law that would increase unemployment benefits to out-of-work Hoosiers. But Indiana has not yet announced when it will begin sending out an additional $300 in unemployment benefits.
The so-called Continued Assistance Act would restart additional Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) benefits at a lower rate – it was originally $600 – and extends the length of time an unemployed worker can be eligible for benefits.
It also gives states a new ability to waive overpayments in the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program for self-employed workers, but requires those workers to provide more documentation to be eligible.
The Department of Workforce Development said it received some guidance from the federal Department of Labor. It will participate in informational webinar sessions this week to learn more about how to meet new requirements and get the additional benefits to Hoosiers soon. Indiana has signed an agreement with the federal government indicating it intends to implement an MEUC program for Hoosiers, however it is unclear when it would begin.
Indiana House Republicans plan to make a lot of one-time investments in the 2021 session to address their top legislative priorities, while Senate Republicans' 2021 agenda is tightly focused on fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many of the House GOP’s top priorities stem from needs that either arose or were intensified over the last year. That includes money to expand rural broadband, a one-time grant to help combat children’s learning loss from the pandemic and funding for local police departments to buy body cameras.
Spending one-time money – as opposed to building ongoing expenses into the new state budget – is a result of projected tighter revenues due to the pandemic.
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Speaker Todd Huston (R-Fishers) said House Republicans also want to put more money into a small business program created by federal COVID relief dollars – funding that will soon run out.
“Build a bridge for our small business partners to get to the other side of this," Huston said. "There is a light at the end of this tunnel. I think, hopefully, it’s sooner rather than later.”
House and Senate Democrats' 2021 legislative agendas are focused on issues that they say the pandemic showed to be incredibly urgent.
For Senate Dems, that includes raising the minimum wage, police reform and expanding vote-by-mail.
Indiana hasn’t raised its minimum wage since 2009. Senate Democrats, led by Minority Leader Greg Taylor (D-Indianapolis), said that’s despite a 20 percent increase in the cost of living.
“Our society relies on minimum wage workers," Taylor said. "And yet our state refused to pay all Hoosiers a living wage.”
House Democrats’ agenda this session includes reducing health care costs, raising teacher pay and supporting small businesses.
House Minority Leader Phil GiaQuinta (D-Fort Wayne) said the pandemic revealed underlying problems that have gone untreated for too long – notably, in health care.
“We know that our citizens are unhealthier than our neighbors," GiaQuinta said. "We are ranked low in obesity, smoking and other key public health metrics."
Hoosier business leaders overwhelmingly voiced support for a bill that would protect organizations from many lawsuits related to COVID-19.
Indiana lawmakers met for the first time this session to discuss Senate Bill 1 that addresses a fear expressed by many business leaders in the state – that unwarranted lawsuits could be financially devastating. However some worry parts of the bill are too broad in its protections.
The bill would protect businesses, hospitals, schools and other institutions from being sued by an individual claiming to have been exposed to COVID-19 while on the premises. It provides an exception for cases involving gross negligence or willful misconduct if clear and convincing evidence is provided.
Testimony from businesses, associations, and institutions representatives – including Purdue University – spoke in favor of the bill.
Indiana lawmakers are fast-tracking legislation to provide schools full funding for students learning remotely because of COVID-19. Lawmakers say the legislation may only be temporary to address changes caused by the pandemic.
Senate Education and Career Development Committee Chair Jeff Raatz (R-Centerville) says the workaround only affects money that was already set aside for brick and mortar schools in the 2019 budget-writing legislative session.
"There was no new appropriation whatsoever, we're just – we had to change the definition so schools remain whole and the money was already available," he said.
Essentially, a student will get full funding if they weren't a virtual school student before the pandemic and didn't enroll in a dedicated virtual school this year – even if that student is learning through a virtual program or setup more than half of their school time as the pandemic continues.
A group of about 20 protesters rallied outside the Statehouse Tuesday against Gov. Eric Holcomb’s public health emergency orders.
The protesters are backing a resolution in the House that would immediately terminate Holcomb’s emergency declaration, in place since March.
State law gives the governor broad powers under a declared state of emergency. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Holcomb has used that authority to, for instance, issue the “Stay-At-Home” order, temporarily close or limit businesses and impose gathering restrictions.