Eric Holcomb Statewide Address 032321
(photo courtesy of Governor Eric Holcomb’s office)

Governor Eric Holcomb is facing pressure from fellow Republicans to end the statewide COVID-19 public health emergency order that’s been in place since March 2020 even as the state has seen a recent jump of infections and hospitalizations.

Many conservatives have criticized Holcomb for continuing to extend the monthly order that he has renewed 20 times. Holcomb has signaled that the 30-day renewal he signed in late October might be the last, but some Republican state lawmakers want to make sure even as the statewide mask mandate and any business or crowd restrictions were lifted months ago.

A resolution aimed at terminating Holcomb’s order sponsored by 31 Republican House members was filed Tuesday for the General Assembly’s mostly ceremonial Organization Day. Although no action was taken on the resolution, Republican House Speaker Todd Huston said he believed “we need to move forward” from the health emergency.

“I think that we feel like we’re reaching that point where we’ve had vaccinations available, we now have boosters available. We’ve got, thank goodness, much better therapies available,” Huston said. “At some point, we move from a government response to an individual responsibility.”

The governor faces a Dec. 1 deadline for extending the health emergency and an accompanying executive order, which, among a handful of provisions, has allowed the state health commissioner to issue a standing doctor’s order allowing COVID-19 vaccinations for children ages 5 to 11.

Holcomb said in a statement Tuesday he was talking with legislative leaders about allowing the public health emergency to expire if lawmakers approved steps allowing the state to keep receiving enhanced federal funding for Medicaid expenses and to those eligible for food assistance programs, along with the childhood vaccination authorization. Holcomb said such actions “would allow us to wind it down responsibly.”

Huston said it was possible legislators could return before the scheduled Jan. 4 start of the new legislative session to act on those issues and that he didn’t anticipate significant objections to Holcomb’s requests, including the childhood vaccination authorization.

“I think as long as they’re voluntary, people are OK with that,” Huston said.

Negotiations over ending the health emergency come as Indiana has seen growing numbers of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations in the past couple weeks after those statistics had improved since the state’s summer surge peaked in mid-September.

Indiana hospitals were treating 1,468 COVID-19 patients as of Monday, a 21% increase in nine days, according to state health department tracking. The state has been averaging about 20 COVID-19 deaths a day, down about half from late September, and Indiana’s pandemic death toll has topped 17,000.

Health experts worry that the more-contagious delta variant could fuel outbreaks across the country this winter as people spend more time inside.

Dr. Richard Feldman, who was state health commissioner under Democratic Gov. Frank O’Bannon, said Indiana still faces great risk with about four in 10 adults not vaccinated against COVID-19. Federal tracking lists Indiana as having the country’s 11th lowest vaccination rate, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Feldman said Holcomb was risking a “dire” message about the ongoing COVID danger.

“If he rescinds the executive order, I think that’s a very, very strong message, a very unfortunate message, to the public that it’s over,” Feldman said. “We’re still in the middle of a pandemic with a high risk for it getting worse.”

Republican Rep. J.D. Prescott of Union City, sponsor of the resolution to terminate Holcomb’s orders, said he believed many of the state’s COVID-19 responses should have been decided by the Legislature rather than just by the governor. He said he’s received almost daily calls from residents wanting an end to the state’s executive orders.

“I’m not trying to minimize the effect of COVID-19, but the need for a state of emergency is no longer there,” Prescott said. “We’ve been living with COVID-19, the reality of COVID-19, for coming on two years and people are educated enough to decide what is best for themselves and their families.”