When a group of kids took a bus ride to church camp earlier this month, they may have given us a glimpse into our future.

At least nine Hopkins County, Kentucky, teenagers contracted COVID-19 after sitting together in the bus’s cramped quarters, the health department there said. Two of them ventured to football practice before their tests came back, and in the end more than 100 people ended up in quarantine.

None of those who tested positive had been vaccinated, 14 News reported.

Coronavirus outbreaks have been rarer as the pandemic recedes from the forefront of American life. Evansville’s free COVID testing site at the C.K. Newsome Center ended Wednesday, and masking and social distancing requirements are crumbling all across the state. Indoor concerts and events have resumed, and now that it’s safe for vaccinated folks to go out in public without masks, people who wouldn’t have dreamed of stepping foot in a restaurant or bar a few months ago are doing just that.

But the virus is still “smoldering,” said Dr. James Porter, president of Deaconess Health System. It may not ever blanket the country like it did last year, but the combination of more contagious variants and meager vaccination rates will allow it to loiter in the Tri-State — and the country — for the foreseeable future.

That means localized outbreaks like the one in Kentucky could become a facet of everyday life, Porter said.

“When non-immune people get together and they’re not doing the things we were doing so diligently before the vaccines — wearing facemasks, social distancing — if someone in that group has COVID, it’s going to get spread around,” he said. “If we don’t reach herd immunity, the likelihood is that we’ll continue to deal with some form of this coronavirus for years and years to come.”

No vaccination requirement: EVSC reopening plan doesn't require COVID vaccinations for students, staff next year

Tri-State COVID vaccination rates

The only way to achieve herd immunity is to vaccinate as many people as possible — and that’s proven difficult in the Evansville area.

President Joe Biden eyed a 70-percent nationwide vaccination rate by the Fourth of July, but we’re miles away from that locally. According to Deaconess, the number of area residents who have received at least one dose hovered between 25 and 51 percent as of June 18.

Warrick County led the way at 51 percent, with Vanderburgh at 46. Posey, Gibson and Spencer stood at 38, 36 and 34, respectively. Indiana’s statewide rate was 44.

Even though Kentucky bested Indiana in overall vaccinations at 48 percent, our area counties fell well short of average. Daviess County stood at 38 percent, while Henderson lingered at 32 and Union mustered a mere 25.

There are multiple reasons for that, Porter said. Some people can’t get vaccinated for medical or religious reasons, and people in rural or low-income areas have less access to the shots.

“Even driving 20 to 30 minutes to get it can be an obstacle,” he said.

Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke said city officials will try to “remove barriers” to vaccination in the coming months. He’s working with METS to establish mobile clinics at large-scale events this summer.

“The virus is still in the community — certainly at a much lower prevalence than it was before. I would hope that our vaccination rate would be higher than what it is,” he said. “Clearly people are enjoying a more normal lifestyle now. … For all that not to be detoured, the best thing to do is get vaccinated.”

Vaccine hesitancy

Of course, logistical and medical reasons aren’t the only things keeping vaccinations low.

Misinformation clouded the country during the heights of the pandemic. Winnecke said it was sometimes tough for Evansville residents to reconcile the reality on the ground versus what they saw on TV or read online.

“My task, among many, was to look through as many lenses as possible and try and stay calm and practical … and hopefully be a voice of assurance and calmness,” he said.

But the internet, as always, is boiling with falsehoods. That, combined with hesitancy overall, suppresses vaccination rates even further.

In recent days, everyone from politicians to disgruntled NFL players have spoken out against vaccine requirements.

Evansville City Councilor Justin Elpers will push for a non-binding resolution opposing mandates at Monday's meeting. And last week, more than 150 employees at Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas either resigned or were fired after they refused to comply with a vaccine mandate. Eight Indiana University students filed a lawsuit in federal court to fight IU’s own requirement, and Evansville-area schools have stopped short of any kind of vaccine rule.

Students sue: Indiana University students sue over COVID-19 vaccine requirement

No requirement yet: Evansville hospitals aren't requiring COVID vaccinations for employees. That may change

Porter, though, has said Deaconess would likely require COVID-19 shots for its employees in the near future.

The Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson shots all received emergency authorization from the Federal Drug Administration, with full approval likely arriving soon. Porter said there’s no question all three are safe and effective – and are the main reasons we’re able to inch back toward normal.

“What people are weighing is, how afraid am I of COVID versus how afraid am I of the vaccine?” he said. “And because they don’t have COVID, it seems like something they don’t need to be that concerned about.”

But there are consequences to waiting too long.

“It fails to recognize the bigger objective in my mind, which is wouldn’t it be nice to not have to worry about COVID-19 anymore?” he said. “As (the virus) continues to smolder, we’re going to have more long-term problems with the variants.”

COVID-19 variants in Evansville

The original form of the virus is mostly gone, Porter said.

In the year-and-a-half since COVID invaded our community, it’s been twisted through countless mutations. The newer strains are more contagious and more likely to make people seriously ill. The U.K. variant is already trucking through Evansville — and the Delta may not be far behind.

That's the strain that ripped through India, and Porter said Deaconess has already shipped off samples to see if it’s swept into town here.

After declining for weeks, Southwestern Indiana hospitalizations are starting to flatten or even tick up. As of June 18, Deaconess still counted about 30 COVID patients. They’re all “almost exclusively” unvaccinated, Porter said.

And thanks to the variants, sufferers are skewing younger than those who got sick in the first waves of infection, said Brian Spencer, Deaconess’ manager of pharmacy services. They’re “normal, healthy adults,” he said. Their only underlying condition may be obesity.

“Those who feel they are not at risk because ‘I’m healthy and I’ll be OK,’ that may not be correct with the current variants,” Spencer said.

So far, the vaccines have proven effective against all strains, but there’s a whole slice of the population who can’t get them yet.

Only one vaccine — Pfizer — has been cleared for kids as young as 12. And even though the virus hasn’t affected children as much as adults, kids should still wear masks in crowded, indoor spaces, Porter said.

That won’t be as big of a concern this summer, when most activities take place outdoors. But as the weather sours into fall, he’s worried infections could surge again.

“If you look back historically at pandemics from viral illness, that’s been a typical problem,” he said. “Numbers decline in summer and come back up once people are more confined. That’s why the CDC is pushing to get to that 70-percent (vaccination) number nationally. But we’re not gonna make it there.”

'Time will tell'

As of now, no one’s sure how long the immunity from the vaccines will last. Spencer said data from Pfizer and Moderna’s trials show antibodies linger for at least six months, and could last longer. Johnson & Johnson will likely bring similar results.

But at some point, people will likely need booster shots. And just as some people get a flu shot one year and blow it off the next, fewer people may take advantage of a COVID refresher when a raging pandemic isn’t hanging over their heads.

If the virus is still around — and it likely will be, unless we reach herd immunity and smother it to embers — that lack of vigilance could allow it to kick up again.

“There is a possibility that this could be something we have to adapt to,” Spencer said. “The Spanish flu was here for a couple years (starting in 1918) and then went away. We’re all crossing our fingers that will be the case with COVID-19. But time will tell.”

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