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WATCH NOW: Region COVID-19 vaccine rollout continues to provide hope
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WATCH NOW: Region COVID-19 vaccine rollout continues to provide hope

From the WATCH NOW: Region Rising series

The coronavirus vaccine has been getting rolled out more and more widely across Northwest Indiana, giving people more hope that the deaths will slow down, the most vulnerable will be protected, and everyday life can return to some semblance of normalcy after the deadliest pandemic in a century.

The coronavirus vaccine has been getting rolled out more and more widely across Northwest Indiana, giving people further hope that the deaths will slow down, the most vulnerable will be protected, and everyday life can return to some semblance of normalcy after the deadliest pandemic in a century.

Positive tests and hospitalizations have been plunging statewide as more people get vaccinated against the virus that has infected over 110 million people around the globe. New hospital admissions plunged from 500 a day in December to fewer than 200 in mid-February.

"As our communities took recommended precautions and as we discovered new treatments, created better tests and developed effective vaccines, we have seen a heartening downward trend in cases and in deaths from the virus," Methodist Hospitals President and CEO Matt Doyle said.

Eligible Hoosiers can sign up for the vaccine at ourshot.in.gov or by calling 211. It's free and just requires an appointment and a photo ID.

The vaccine has been getting rolled out in phases. It initially was offered to health care workers on the front lines, first responders, and those routinely exposed to COVID-19 infectious materials, such as in-patient rooms, at test sites, or in morgues or funeral homes.

Indiana expanded eligibility for vaccinations to those at least 70 years old in mid-January, to those at least 65 in mid-February and to those at least 60 on Feb. 23. Teams of pharmacists from Walgreens and CVS were dispatched to vaccinate seniors at nursing homes and retirement communities, including the AHEPA 78 Senior Apartments in Merrillville, Residences at Deer Creek in Schererville and Residences at Coffee Creek in Chesterton.

Hospital Workers at Gary and Merrillville Methodist Hospitals administer vaccinations for region residents.

“It’s been a long and winding road with many new and unprecedented curves," Residences at Deer Creek Executive Director Karen Ayersman said. "Without the cooperation of our residents, dedicated staff, families, partners in care and essential vendors, we could not have built the bridge essential to arriving at this point, nearly a year later.”

Earlier this year, the COVID-19 vaccine was available at more than 30 sites in Northwest Indiana. One could get the shot at NorthShore Health, Franciscan Health, Methodist Hospitals, Community Hospital, Northwest Health Porter, Lake and Porter County health departments, some city health departments, and some pharmacies, including Walmart, Kroger Sam's Club and Meijer.

“It is a giant step towards stopping the virus, especially in underserved areas where it has had a devastating impact on our most vulnerable citizens,” HealthLinc CEO Beth Wrobel said.

See a day in the life of Portage Patrolman Brian Graves in the latest installment of Riding Shotgun with NWI Cops.

Video filmed by Kale Wilk and produced by Scotia White. Interview by Anna Ortiz.

The process takes just 15 minutes.

Anyone getting inoculated automatically gets signed up for a date and time for the second booster shot and can expect to receive reminder messages. Studies have shown that getting both doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that are now available are up to 94% effective.

Franciscan Health has administered 55,000 shots in Hammond, Crown Point, Michigan City, Indianapolis and Olympia Fields as of Feb. 17. About 18,000 people got the second dose. 

"We have seen high demand for the vaccines with the announcement of each eligible group," Communications and Media Relations Specialist Robert Blaszkiewicz said. "The public should be assured that these vaccines are safe. Our experience in administering the vaccine concurs with the data from the extensive studies, showing low risks for both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines."

As of late February, more than 834,000 Hoosiers got their first shot and more than 356,000 received both doses, Indiana Department of Health Media Relations Coordinator Megan Wade-Taxter said.

"From the beginning, the priorities stated in our vaccine allocation plan were to save lives, reduce hospitalizations and protect vulnerable populations," she said. "We began by vaccinating health care workers who provide direct patient care and long-term care staff and residents, and then expanded eligibility to include first responders and individuals age 65 and older. We are taking an age-based approach to current expansion because age is the No. 1 cause of hospitalizations and death due to COVID. Hoosiers age 60 and older account for more than 64% of COVID hospitalizations and more than 93% of COVID-19 deaths in the state."

The Indiana Department of Health anticipates adding more groups based on vaccine availability.

Thus far, nearly 1.4 million people Hoosiers signed up for appointments between mid-December and late February, including 64% of Hoosiers over the age of 70 and 66% of health care workers.

"It's incredibly exciting to see these numbers continue to climb," Indiana Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Christina Box said.

Indiana has been getting about 100,000 doses a week. Eligibility must be limited as long as supplies are low, so that the state can ensure enough inventory for second doses, Box said.

"Our goal is to ensure all our second doses are covered before we expand further," she said.

Chief Medical Officer Lindsay Weaver said future phases of eligibility would be based on data, to protect those more vulnerable to serious illness and death.

Once a large enough percentage of Hoosiers between 60 and 65 years old have been vaccinated and vaccine supplies are adequate, eligibility will be expanded to Indiana residents 50 and older and those with co-morbidities where they are more likely to die of COVID-19.

"Hoosiers 50 and older make up just 35% of the population but account for more than 80% of the hospitalizations and 97.6% of our deaths," she said. "Hoosiers 50 to 59 are 30 times more likely than Hoosiers 20 to 29 to die from COVID-19. They are four times more likely to be hospitalized. By making Hoosiers 50 and over eligible for the vaccinations, we are capturing 82% of the state's population that has any co-morbidity that suffers from any co-morbidity that increases their risk."

More than 858,000 Hoosiers are in their 50s.

"Expanding to this group will be a large undertaking that will require ample supplies of the vaccine," Weaver said.

About 51,000 Hoosiers have specific conditions that make them four times more likely to die from the coronavirus, including those on dialysis, those with Down syndrome, organ transplant recipients, sickle cell disease patients and those actively being treated for cancer.

"We know that these conditions do not include all Hoosiers who have conditions that could put them at greater risk of COVID. But we are working to expand to those most at risk as quickly as our vaccine supplies allow us to do so," she said. "We are hopeful that more vaccines could be on the way in the near future."

The one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, for instance, is up for FDA approval soon and will be easier to distribute, since it's only one shot and can simply be refrigerated without the more stringent storage requirements the other vaccines have.

Rough winter weather slowed down vaccine distribution in late February, but state officials are optimistic that they can vaccinate more at-risk groups as supplies roll in.

"We still have a long way to go before we can say the worst of this pandemic is behind us," Weaver said. "Know that we are expanding vaccine eligibility as quickly as our supplies allow."

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.

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