Northwest Indiana Officials Push Back On Plans To Reopen The State In Lake County, Ind., which has reported more than 1,200 COVID-19 cases, officials say more testing is needed before restrictions are eased.
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Northwest Indiana Officials Push Back On Plans To Reopen The State

Northwest Indiana Officials Push Back On Plans To Reopen The State

Northwest Indiana Officials Push Back On Plans To Reopen The State

Northwest Indiana Officials Push Back On Plans To Reopen The State

Protesters gather outside the Indiana governor's mansion in Indianapolis, Saturday, April 18, 2020, urging Gov. Eric Holcomb to back off restrictions on residents because of the coronavirus and restart the economy. Michael Conroy/Associated Press hide caption

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Michael Conroy/Associated Press

Indiana officials are feeling optimistic about the trend of the COVID-19 pandemic and are considering reopening some businesses in the state in early May.

Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb has extended Indiana's stay-at-home order to May 1. But he's eased restrictions on hospitals from doing elective surgeries, and he's considering loosening other limits soon, perhaps as a nod to protests by conservatives in the overwhelmingly red state.

To some people in heavily Democratic Northwest Indiana, relaxing precautions in a few weeks would be premature. They say their part of the state has the second-highest number of coronavirus cases in Indiana, and they're still trying to get a handle on the pandemic.

"We don't have an accurate count here in Northwest Indiana because we don't have an accurate number of tests," said state Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon, D-Munster. "So before they take any action to open up this state, they need to increase testing. We are sandwiched between two hot spots: one in Indianapolis and one in Chicago."

As of Tuesday, Lake County had 1,227 coronavirus cases and 54 deaths. That's second only to 4,176 cases and 206 deaths in Marion County, where Indianapolis is located. More than a quarter of Lake County's cases are in Gary, with nearly 300 as of Tuesday. There have been eight COVID-19 deaths in the city.

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Some Northwest Indiana officials accuse the state of being slow to ramp up testing in their region, despite the high number of cases in Lake County. As of Tuesday, 5,791 people had been tested in Lake County, compared with 19,705 in Marion County, according to the Indiana State Department of Health.

"I'm tired of Lake County being the stepchild of this state," Reardon said. "This effort has been very Marion County-focused."

The state recently sent teams to Merrillville and Gary to provide drive-up testing for first responders and essential workers showing symptoms of coronavirus. Lake County Health Officer Dr. Chandana Vavilala believes confirmed cases will increase — and not just because of more testing.

"We are the second most populous county in the state, but, also ... we are right next to Chicago," Vavilala said. "As the Chicago numbers are going up, we are going to see an increase in the numbers over the next few weeks."

Gary Mayor Jerome Prince, wearing black mask, accepts 34 ventilators that arrived April 18 and will be used at hospitals in Northwest Indiana to treat COVID-19 patients. Michael Puente/WBEZ hide caption

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Michael Puente/WBEZ

Gary Mayor Jerome Prince has demanded more federal and state resources to deal with the pandemic in his city of 75,000, which is mostly African American.

"We need resources here and we need them now," Prince said. "African Americans and the elderly are the most vulnerable. From a demographic perspective, that absolutely is reflective of the city of Gary."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state health department are making plans to establish a 50-bed field hospital in Gary to deal with any surge in cases. Over the weekend, Prince was at Gary/Chicago International Airport to see 34 ventilators made at a General Motors factory in Kokomo delivered to his city.

"Since the beginning of our engagement with COVID-19, this dates back to March 2nd, we've always had some concern about testing," Prince said. "But I've got to say, I'm starting to see improvement."

Still, Prince hopes talk of reopening Indiana will slow down to allow testing in Lake County to catch up.

"Our numbers continue to come in and we're certainly realizing new instances of positives [cases]," Prince said. "Now that the testing is ramping up, I would say let's give it a little while before we make a conclusion as to where we are presently and let's continue to observe. That's certainly the approach that the medical professionals are taking around here as well."

Michael Puente covers Northwest Indiana for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.

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