“We were down in Marco Island (Florida), and we saw all these private jets flying in and out, trying to get away from this thing. Everyone was just evacuating.
“It was Friday, March 13, 2020 — that’s when COVID broke,” said Dr. Alan Stewart, who has helped guide local residents through the pandemic for three years now.
Stewart, who took the position as Knox County Health Officer in 2019, imagined his time in public health would be spent focusing on things like educating area youngsters, conducting outreach programs to help teens and adults stop smoking, or perhaps working to address homelessness.
When he took on the job, he says COVID wasn’t even on the radar. Yet, a few short months later, the new virus was all-consuming.
Stewart, in a whirlwind of memories from those earliest days of the coronavirus, recalls his cellphone buzzing constantly, as everyone from local elected leaders to school administrators looked to him for answers and advice about this new, fast-moving virus that nobody yet understood.
By March 14, grocery store shelves were all but empty, with residents across the nation hoarding loaves of bread, canned goods, and toilet paper.
“We cancelled our flight out of Florida and rented a car to get back home as quickly as we could,” Stewart recalls. “The poor guy at the rental car desk said we were the 400th car that day, and we realized this thing was big.”
On March 16, Indiana recorded its first COVID-19 death — a 70-year-old woman named Birdie.
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, on March 22, announced an impending stay-at-home order — originally slated to last two weeks, but which dragged on until May, leaving businesses and schools shuttered and people isolated and lonely.
“Everything was closing, and nobody knew what to do, but we realized it was spreading fast.
“It was scary and dangerous, and we needed to take quick action to try to protect our community; state-by-state, we all shut down,” Stewart said.
By April 3, the 100th Hoosier died as a result of the virus. By the end of that month, 1,000 more would be lost.
“It’s all a blur now,” said COVID-19 nurse and clinic coordinator Betty Lankford of the early days of the pandemic. “I guess because I didn’t know what to expect — none of us did. There was no recipe, no routine, no organization. We had to fly by the seat of our pants.”
Stewart tapped Lankford to help lead the vaccination efforts just after her retirement from Good Samaritan in December 2020.
Her initial contract was meant to be for six months, working eight hours per day, five days each week.
“What a joke,” she says now with a laugh.
Instead, Lankford worked at least 12 hours each day, six or seven days every week for more than a year, doing what she could to mitigate the spread of the virus: researching, Zooming in on state-level meetings, mobilizing a small army of volunteers to staff the COVID vaccine clinic, and diligently working to ensure Knox County never ran out of vaccines.
Within a short time of working together, Stewart and Lankford functioned as a well-oiled machine, practically reading one another’s thoughts.
“Just as I’m thinking of something, or have an idea, he’ll say it out loud,” Lankford says, grateful for such a solid collegial partnership during an unfathomable crisis.
Lankford, who spent years as a registered nurse at Good Samaritan, said working in the vaccine clinic helped her cope with some flickers of lingering guilt about leaving her fellow nurses behind amid the ongoing pandemic.
“I feel the guilt of not being there — feeling like I left them. It still bothers me, when I have the time to feel it,” she said in an August 2021 interview.
But working to distribute vaccines to residents helped Lankford and scores of other retired nurses ease the weight of that guilt, giving them a vital role to fulfill.
“It gave a lot of people in the community a feeling of self worth because they contributed to managing the pandemic. It probably also helped a lot of people keep their sanity,” she said, noting that perhaps one positive outcome of the pandemic is that it made people more acutely aware of just how much they needed human connection.
In total, at the height of vaccination efforts in 2021, the local COVID-19 clinic had 160 men and women volunteering their time, assisting with everything from paperwork to administering the vaccines.
Student nurses from Vincennes University, too, answered the call in January 2021 when residents — beginning with our eldest citizens first — were eligible for their first dose of Pfizer or Moderna.
“We had an older patient who really wanted this shot, and a VU student nurse was the one to give it to her. The patient was crying because she was so relieved to have it,” Lankford recalls. “It was a good day for the patient, but what an awesome thing for that student nurse to experience.”
Stewart, too, fondly remembers the early vaccination efforts, and the hope and joy that came with those small, frozen vials.
“Those were the days when people would come into the clinic in tears, thanking us,” he said.
But the longer the pandemic lingered on, health officials found much of the tide of public favor had turned against them.
“In 2020 I was everyone’s best friend, and it was like what I said was practically the gospel, but by the resurgence of COVID in fall 2021, a lot of people didn’t want to listen anymore — as if this was all just made up,” Stewart said.
He says the political rhetoric diminishing the real threat of the virus, attacks on the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, and missteps at the federal level made everything much more challenging across the U.S.
“We have had almost double the death rate of almost any other developed nation because we didn’t do it right,” Stewart said.
In the three years since the onset of COVID-19, more than 26,000 Hoosiers and 1,133,461 Americans have died as a result of the virus — including 168 residents of Knox County.
At the height of the pandemic, locally, Good Samaritan saw more than 40 inpatient cases at one time, overwhelming an already overburdened healthcare system.
“People think it’s over, but it’s not,” said Lankford, noting the county saw another COVID-related death just last week.
Particularly vulnerable, still, are those who are immunocompromised or face chronic illness — particularly if they are unvaccinated.
Though the threat of the virus isn’t gone, Stewart says he believes the virus is now in an endemic stage, with it evolving to become more contagious but less virulent — and therefore less likely to lead to serious illness and death.
Lankford and Stewart, both of retirement age, are grateful to have come out the other side of the worst of COVID-19, and they continue to press forward for the betterment of public health, which now includes turning their attention to other matters.
“If there is a silver lining that has come with all of this, it’s that Governor Holcomb — who did a yeoman’s job during the pandemic, by the way — recognized the need for public health, and he really wants to raise Indiana up,” said Stewart.
The governor is committed to improving funding for public health across the state, particularly to departments who have clear plans for improved programming.
The Knox County Health Department, say Stewart and Lankford, is already well underway with improvements, plans, and programs.
“Our state officials want to be sure we’re not just going to throw money at things that won’t be well utilized, and I agree 100%,” said Stewart, noting that the local health department in recent weeks has already started five new programs, including CPR classes, testing for sexually transmitted infections, and smoking cessation efforts — the kinds of programming Stewart hoped to implement when he took on the position of health officer years ago.
“It’s exciting; this was Dr. Stewart’s dream,” said Lankford, happy to see her own role at the health department move beyond managing the COVID crisis.
Looking back, the pair of healthcare workers say they simply performed and served the best they could with the what they had.
“We never knew on any given day what we were going to face,” said Lankford. “Fortunately, we had a lot of people willing to help us figure it out.”
Elected officials, economic leaders and agricultural innovators filled the Pantheon Thursday to hear from the experts on the future of agbiosciences in the Hoosier economy.
A roadshow hosted by AgriNovus, a growth-focused coalition of leaders based in Indianapolis and focused entirely on growing Indiana’s agbiosciences economy, made its debut at the Pantheon, 428 Main St., offering up the results of a study commissioned by the organization to measure the growth of agbiosciences in Indiana over the last few years.
The report provides an in-depth assessment of the opportunity Indiana has for continued growth within the many facets of the agbioscience sector.
Using the information gleaned from the study — and taking that to Indiana cities to share — AgriNovus is on a mission to add $4 billion to Indiana’s agbioscience economy by the end of 2024.
The Pantheon was one of only three locations to host the roadshow, the others being in Fort Wayne and Indianapolis over the next month.
Mitch Frazier, president and CEO of AgriNovus, kicked things off Thursday afternoon by giving those in attendance a crash course in the study’s findings.
The research found that Indiana’s agbioscience sector directly contributed more than $58 billion to Indiana’s overall economy — an increase of more than $6 billion since 2018, Frazier said.
Conducted by TEConomy Partners, the study identified that the growth across Indiana’s agbioscience economy since 2018 marked the fastest-growing time for the industry since measurements to quantify it began in 2012.
“The agbioscience economy is the only economy in the world that touches every person on the planet given that it centers on food,” Frazer told the group. “The growth this research identifies represents the tremendous gains Indiana’s agbioscience innovators are advancing to meet global demand across food, animal health, plant science and agtech.”
The study looked specifically at four different sectors: value-added food and nutrition, animal health and nutrition, ag equipment and technologies, and plant science and crop protection.
Value-added food and nutrition increased 2% during the study period, specifically between 2018 and 2021, and is the largest component of the state’s agbioscience economy, with nearly $30 billion in output.
Animal health and nutrition increased an astonishing 27.3%, making it the “fastest growing innovation-based platform of Indiana’s agbiosciences economy over the last decade,” Frazier said.
The advancement of ag equipment and technology systems increased nearly 17% during the study period to $2.2 billion, maintaining its momentum as the second-fastest growing platform since 2012, Frazier said, and plant science and crop protection increased 7.2% to $3.3 billion, reflecting positive growth for the first time in more than a decade.
The study shows the total economic impact of agbioscience in Indiana, including its direct output and its indirect and induced impact on other industries, grew from $76 billion in 2018 to $91 billion in 2021.
Agbioscience employment in Indiana grew 7.5% from 2018 to 2021, and average wages of agbioscience jobs (excluding farm proprietors) topped $69,000 — a total that is more than 3% higher than the average 2021 private-sector wage in the state.
Agbiosciences employment now tops more than 156,000; about 10% of Indiana’s overall workforce has a connection — either directly, indirectly or induced — by the ag market, Frazier said.
“And the really great news is that growth we are seeing in (agbioscience) jobs, 7.5% in 36 months, Indiana saw overall employment growth of 2.5%,” Frazier added.
And while this growth is amazing news for Indiana, Frazier is hopeful for even more.
Indiana boasts two publicly-held global leaders in the agbioscience sectors, specifically Elanco, the second-largest animal health company in the world, as well as Corteva, a leader in agriscience innovation. The opportunities possible with those headquartered right here in Indiana, he said, are limitless.
So what do we do with all of that information here in Knox County?
Frazier issued a challenge to those in attendance Thursday — for everyone in the room to come together and figure that out.
“Go to your audiences, ask them what challenges they face,” Frazier urged community leaders and elected officials gathered at the Pantheon. “Ask them, better understand their problems and then help to identify solutions to help them better connected to their customers.
“Go to your producers, say, ‘Help us to understand what is missing in digital on your farm.’ Then go rally startups, academics, students, entrepreneurs, anybody who will listen, and find a way to create new innovation, a company to help them solve that problem.
“It’s up to all of us to help people see what is possible in this (agbioscience) economy that is thriving and growing,” he said. “We have to operate knowing this is the foundation of the world economy. We have to operate every day knowing this is the only economy that touches every single person on the planet. That knowledge creates a sense of responsibility and, in my opinion, duty.”
Chris Pfaff, president of Knox County Indiana Economic Development, was among those in attendance Thursday.
The presentation itself — the fact that the Pantheon was one of only three places in the state at which the results of that study were presented to the public — is a testament to the footprint the co-working space is making in the ag tech community.
“It’s because of those relationships, with statewide leaders, that you’re seeing more of these types of events come to Vincennes, specifically to the Pantheon,” he said.
The results of AgriNovus’ study, he went on, show the “really substantial economic impact” agriculture has on Indiana’s overall economy. Knox County has always appreciated that fact, he pointed out, being the No. 1 grower in the state, fifth in the nation.
The question now, he said, is how to take what was learned from the study — and the growth of the agbioscience industry in general — and learn how it can be capitalized upon here.
“Collectively, we have to come together and figure out how that data can help us understand our own future,” he said. “If we’re seeing double digit growth in certain areas, is that a place where we want to focus more on because of the opportunities it creates for us?”
Getting that conversation started, he said, is the first step.
“I’ve found that it’s amazing who comes to the table and the new ideas that come when you begin to facilitate that conversation,” he said. “Conversation leads to recognition, which leads to ideas, which leads to solutions.”
Drew Garretson, chair of the Pantheon’s Ag Tech Committee and the chief marketing officer for Ceres Solutions, said the impact agriculture has on Knox County’s economy has been a topic of conversation at the co-working space for a long time.
The information learned Thursday, he said, leaves him with even more questions about how much larger of an impact it can have in the future.
“We tend to think about our big employers being the things that drive our economic development, but in all reality, there is a lot of revenue driven by our ag sector, revenue that I think we underestimate a lot of times,” he said.
“So how awesome would it be for us to be able to do a similar study of just Knox County so that we can begin to understand our strengths, and how we can leverage those to do even more, recruit more startups and investors, create more opportunities.”
Garretson said he was encouraged by what’s happening across the state in terms of agbioscience, and he’s more driven than ever to see how that can play out right here at home.
“It’s important to the state of Indiana, yes, but it’s really important to us, even though we haven’t measured it yet,” he said. “What I took away from all of this is that we’re doing the right thing here in Knox County.
“There are big things happening, and Knox County can be at the center of it all.”
Beware the Ides of March, right?
It’s what so many of us say to one another this time of year — a parting phrase, a simple, yet ominous, reminder that mid-March has come, a gentle nudge to be mindful, for we never know what despair may befall us.
The phrase has multiple contexts — a single origin — yet most of us know it from William Shakespeare’s 1599 play “Julius Caesar,” wherein a “seer” tells Caesar ahead of his assassination to “beware the Ides of March,” warning him of betrayal amongst his people and, ultimately, his own insufferable demise.
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve found myself thinking of that phrase — that menacing sentiment — several times. It’s not one that ever entered my mind, not one I ever offered to others, but a series of recent mishaps, disappointments and challenges has certainly left me wary of the Ides of March.
Wondering if I shouldn’t pay it more attention after all.
To start, a power surge the result of a wind storm left thousands of dollars in damages to our home, ruining everything from light bulbs to a refrigerator and an entire H-VAC system installed only a few weeks ago.
There, too, were work demands, professional changes, bombardments of bad news, and it often felt I couldn’t keep up.
To add insult to injury, my laptop screen went completely black while covering an important meeting, sending me into a fit of tears, the icing on top of a particularly yucky cake I never wanted in the first place.
It seemed I couldn’t tackle one obstacle, find my way around one setback, before another arrived. Every day, something else.
Big things, little things — they all piled up, filling the space around me with fear and anxiety, crowding out joy and leaving me feeling helpless.
At times, even hopeless.
The good news, however, is that many things have been resolved. Our insurance company has been easy to work with; soon we’ll have the money to replace what was damaged as a result of the power surge.
A new refrigerator already buzzes in our kitchen.
My laptop was sent off for repair, and thanks to an earlier wherewithal to purchase AppleCare, it didn’t cost me a dime. It was back on my desk, nothing lost, in a matter of days.
I’m adjusting to changes forced upon me, yet many hardships remain, several unknowns still loom.
Beware the Ides of March.
A friend reminded me, though, that the Ides of March doesn’t take its origins in cautionary tales.
For the ancient Romans, the Ides was a nod to the phases of the moon, specifically the first new moon of each month, which typically fell somewhere in the middle.
To them, the phrase held an opposite, more encouraging meaning. It signified new beginnings, clean slates and opportunity, even invited celebration for the possibility of good things to come.
So as I sit here, wobbling back and forth between the good and the bad — the remaining problems and possible resolutions — I’m pondering the Ides of March more and more, wondering what it all means, if anything at all.
Is March 15 a sinister day? Or can it just be the mark of change, a shift to something else — something better?
And, for that matter, is any day, really, any different?
There’s bad luck, good fortune and everything in between, and none of it prefers one day of the month over another.
I know that, in my mind, to be true.
Yet given my own experiences during the month of March 2023, it’s possible, moving forward, I may find myself being more mindful, a little extra cautious as I turn the page of the calendar in 2024 and beyond, perhaps even offering that phrase to others in passing when March 15 draws near, remembering all of these struggles and mishaps.
But I also hope that, someday very soon, I look back and find that I came out on the other side, that the Ides of March, while unpleasant this year, also marked the end of a particularly difficult time, that the first of April brought a new beginning, as it so often does, in all its many bright colors and signs of returning life.
So, yes, beware the Ides of March. From my experience, it can be rough.
But spring, dear friends, is right around the corner.