Just six weeks after reaching the coveted ‘zero’ rating on Indiana’s COVID-19 metrics map, Knox County has jumped past yellow and back to orange for the first time in more than six months.
With dozens of active cases locally and a 17% positivity rate, the county returned to the second most severe designation, a spot it hasn’t seen since December 2020.
Good Samaritan, too, is once again seeing some inpatient cases of COVID, with Knox County Health Officer Dr. Alan Stewart describing two of the hospitalized individuals as “quite ill.”
Stewart says there is now clearly community spread occurring, prompting the health department to urge residents to begin masking again in confined public spaces.
The masking recommendation, says Stewart, includes vendors at this week’s Knox County Fair.
“We’re seeing just what we saw this time last year, where we went from an occasional case to lots of cases,” he said. “We will have to be just as diligent as we were last year — If you really don’t want to get infected, wear a mask.”
Though some vaccinated individuals have tested positive for the virus, reporting minor illness, the vast majority of cases stem from unvaccinated populations.
“99.5% of people getting really sick, and those who are dying from the virus, are unvaccinated,” said Stewart.
But, he says, the fact that several vaccinated individuals have become infected is another reason to mask when in public, as it adds another layer of protection against the virus.
The current upward trend in cases is eerily reminiscent of July 2020, Stewart said, noting that case numbers went up last year as more locals traveled outside of the state or gathered in large numbers.
“The numbers are clearly going up, and it’s just like the transition we made last year at this time,” he said.
But this summer the county is seeing a new strain of the virus running rampant. Specifically, the Delta variant.
“We know we have the Delta variant here, and our guess is that it’s the majority of our cases now,” Stewart said.
The Delta mutation of the coronavirus left a trail of death across India and has now been found in 124 countries, and it accounts for roughly 83% of new positive cases in the U.S.
Though the mutation does not seem to be any more virulent than other strains, it has proven to be much more contagious than the original virus as well as the B117 strain, which originated in Britain last winter.
According to Stewart, the R-value of the original strain of virus was between 3 and 4, and the B117 strain had an R-value of 5.
The R number is a way of rating any disease’s ability to spread. Seasonal influenza, by comparison, typically has an R-value of less than 1.5.
“But this one — the Delta — it has an R-value of 7,” Stewart said last week, noting that if one unmasked person infected with the strain walked into a room, they would likely infect 7 others in that space.
The Delta variant, too, is less likely to cause the loss of taste and smell — symptoms that had become synonymous with COVID-19.
Instead, this strain of the virus more typically begins by presenting as a runny nose or upper respiratory infection.
“People will be inclined to think they have a common cold,” said Stewart.
Though the majority of local residents have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, Stewart says conditions will continue to worsen in the second half of the year if more eligible adults and adolescents aren’t vaccinated.
“We won’t see the surge we saw last year, but we will see increasing numbers.
“The death toll won’t be as bad either, but it’s still going to be a tough winter with a lot of people going into quarantine,” said Stewart.
Too, he says, while most cases likely won’t be as severe as with the original strain in 2020, even mild COVID cases are going to lead to significant inconveniences for people — with adults missing more work and kids missing more school days.
The way to reduce the likelihood of such inconveniences, Stewart says, is to wear face masks in public spaces — particularly in crowded spaces indoors, such as grocery stores — and to get vaccinated.
“The vaccines are safe, and they will make life a lot less inconvenient for everyone,” he said. “There is no doubt that they are helping save lives.”
A recent survey found that half of its respondents aren’t satisfied with their internet service, finding it too slow or unreliable, according to data released this week by the county’s Broadband Task Force.
The newly-named Knox County Indiana Economic Development — formerly known as KCDC — in May partnered with Purdue University’s Center for Regional Development and embarked on a county-wide survey to gauge just how good — or bad — internet service is here.
They were able to collect just over 1,000 responses — a large-enough sample, officials have said — and among the key findings were that of the 90% who said they did have internet service, nearly half weren’t satisfied with it.
Their disappointment, the survey said, strongly correlated with the internet delivery method, i.e. satellite vs. fiberoptic or cable, with the former offering less reliability and speed.
Half of seniors and 44% of elementary-age children said they had either no home internet at all or unreliable service.
And about half of the speed tests conducted failed to meet the broadband threshold.
Early this year, Chris Pfaff, CEO of Knox County Indiana Economic Development, announced the reorganization of the countywide Broadband Task Force, one founded more than two years ago by his predecessor, Kent Utt.
Its members were charged with evaluating current broadband coverage throughout the county and developing solutions for a quicker build out of the infrastructure needed to extend services to underserved portions of Knox County, specifically rural areas to the north and south of Vincennes.
The first order of business was figuring out exactly how bad internet service is, hence the survey.
Now, task force’s chairman, Drew Garretson, said they will shift to finding solutions.
“We have the data, so we will engage with internet service providers in the areas where we have identified gaps,” he said. “We know where some of those households are with no access at all or with access that fails to meet minimum requirements for things like e-learning or Telehealth, and we’ll do what we can to see if we can work with providers to get better access to those homes.”
Some of the greatest gaps in coverage, Garretson said, were around the Monroe City area as well as portions of Bicknell and Oaktown.
Funding for upgrades, too, is a possibility, now that the county is armed with the appropriate data to show there are significant gaps in service.
The task force hopes to be able to leverage the results to secure funding from various pots of money, specifically the state’s Next Level Connections program, into which another $250 million is reportedly being pumped, or the Federal Communications Commission, which announced last year the launch of its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund designed to close the digital divide that often exists in rural America.
Knox County Indiana Economic Development, too, is in talks with three organizations that have received FCC funds, specifically Watch Communications and its efforts to possibly expand internet service in the southern portions of Knox County, as well as the Rural Telephone Corporation in Daviess County, which has an eye on Bicknell.
Pfaff, too, has said there is an outfit in Texas that secured a majority of the federal funding, and that the task force is working to “accelerate any plans” it may have for portions of southwestern Indiana.
“The task force will continue to stay in tact,” Garretson said. “We will continue to meet and work with the state on what funding opportunities are out there. We also want to identify internet service providers and begin those conversations, see if we can incentivize them. This data will go a long way in doing that.
“We will continue to look at creative and reliable solutions to bridge the gap,” he said.
The Knox County Commissioners this week finalized the makeup of the corporation that will hold the bonds associated with the proposed expansion of the county jail, and with a new design nearly finished and a construction manager officially on board, construction seems imminent.
“Things seem to be moving rather smoothly at this point in time,” said commissioner T.J. Brink, “and that is always a good thing.”
In the first order of jail-related business during their regular meeting Tuesday, the commissioners appointed Dennis Kordes, manager at Colonial Assisted Living and a member of both the Vincennes Tree Board and the Vincennes Police Department Merit Commission, as well as Keith Doades, the owner of Media Five Sports, to the Knox County Holding Corp., the entity that will be responsible for “holding” the soon-to-be expanded county jail amid its bond-supported construction.
Commission president Trent Hinkle called them both “find upstanding men in the community.”
Last week, the county council appointed its two members — Jason Hurst and Angie York. Hurst serves as the assistant branch manager at Evansville Teachers Federal Credit Union, and York is a senior accounting analyst at Pioneer Oil.
A fifth member was to be of their joint choosing, and the commissioners this week agreed with the council on the appointment of Jon Manning — the former vice president of behavioral health at Good Samaritan and current member of the county jail committee.
Holding corporations are common in projects where bonds are sold as governing bodies are limited in terms of how much debt they can take on. The holding corporation will essentially “hold” the jail until the bonds are paid off. Then the facility is handed back over to the county itself.
The same process was used when the original jail was built years ago.
But the county is still a few months away from approving the bond sale necessary to move forward with construction.
Lara Dawson, an architect with local firm RQAW, said the design has reached substantial development and drawings have been submitted to Garmong Construction, Terre Haute. Officials there are now putting some final cost estimates together, which will be ready by the first week in August, Dawson said.
The commissioners, too, gave final approval a contract with Garmong this week as well, officially bringing them on board as the construction manager for the project.
Dawson said while things are moving along well, they did hit something of a snag with some recent geotech samples.
The land onto which the expansion would be built was found to be in a somewhat undesirable seismic category — meaning more prone to damage in the event of an earthquake — which would require a much larger investment, both in terms of overall structure and its mechanical aspects.
But the same occurred when Garmong oversaw the expansion and renovation of the Vincennes Community School Corp.’s neighborhood elementary schools, Dawson said. They spent some additional money — just about $4,000 — for some extra, more in-depth testing to get a more thorough and accurate soil reading.
That small investment, Dawson explained to the commissioners, resulted in a better seismic rating for the school corporation. And in the county’s case, it would save the county “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” she said.
So the commissioners agreed to move forward with the additional geo tech testing.
Once Garmong comes back with a cost estimate based on RQAW’s updated design, the jail committee will then meet to look it over.
The county council, too, will need to take action on actually selling the bonds and raising the funds necessary to move forward.
If all goes well, Dawson said they should be able to let the project out for bid sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“Then we can have a groundbreaking just as soon as weather allows,” she said.
The county is looking to leverage the income from the reinstated jail tax to bond just over $23 million and combine that with $2.75 million in cash on hand.
The current proposed project includes both the addition of a new jail pod to the facility at 2375 S. Old Decker Road as well as a building to house community corrections next door, moving from its current downtown location inside the old jail.