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A long time coming

After nearly a year of isolation, 100-year-old Mary Margaret Evans was the first in line Monday morning to receive the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.

“That was it?” she asked with wide eyes, to which onlookers chuckled in response.

“Yep, that was it,” replied nurse Vickie Stephens as she placed a bandage over the injection site. “You’re all vaccinated.”

For nearly four weeks, during phase 1A, vaccines were limited solely to healthcare and frontline workers.

However, last week the Indiana State Department of Health announced plans to transition to phase 1B of the vaccine rollout.

This second phase allows for vaccinations of some of the highest risk community members — specifically those who live in group or longterm care homes as well as those aged 80 and over.

Betty Lankford, the county’s COVID-19 speciality nurse and vaccine site coordinator, says when Mary Evans called the Knox County Health Department last week to inquire about vaccine eligibility and registration, it was an emotional moment.

“The nurse who took (Mary’s) phone call was in tears by the end of the conversation,” said Lankford, describing how Vickie Stephens was affected by the call.

“She was just so touched and excited about the vaccine that she started to cry, so we decided she needed to be our first patient,” Lankford added.

Stephens, who has been a nurse for 35 years, says her brief conversation with Evans formed a bond.

“You know sometimes you just make a connection with people, and she just warmed my heart,” Stephens said, joyous tears forming in her eyes as Evans — assisted by her walker — made her way toward the vaccination chair.

Evans said she couldn’t wait to get the first dose of the vaccine.

“I have stayed at home all the time since March, so I feel like I’ve missed out on a lot,” she said. “My children have all been so good at helping me with everything, and I get a lot of phone calls which helps, but I’ve still been anxious to get this shot.”

Evans, like so many others, has spent most of the last year missing church services, family birthday parties and holidays, and she’s ready to make up for lost time.

“I had plans to visit my children at Christmas but decided it wasn’t the right thing to do, but on Christmas Eve they stood outside and sang ‘We Wish you a Merry Christmas.’

“So I was taken care of, but it’s still very lonesome,” Evans said.

By the close of business Monday, the new vaccine site, located inside the community building adjacent to Community United Methodist Church, 1548 Hart Street Road, vaccinated roughly one hundred mostly-elderly community members.

Lankford says as the registration process improves in the coming days, she and her team of nurses should be able to vaccinate up to four individuals every ten minutes.

Seeing a hundred or more patients per day was the driving factor in using the church’s community center as the first public vaccination site, Lankford said.

“We at first planned to do this at the health department, but quickly figured out that we didn’t have the space for that many people to flow through the building,” she explained. “After some brainstorming, we realized the Methodist community center had what we needed.”

With its spacious interior, entry and exit doors opposite each other and ample parking, health officials found the location practically perfect for the need.

Lankford, who was hired to coordinate the vaccination site, says this job is unlike anything she’s done before, and it will likely be months before she has time to process just how significant this moment in time is.

Starting as a medical assistant in 1975 and later working as a bedside nurse, Lankford explains those roles in the medical field came with a clearer set of directions and expectations. Being named the county’s COVID nurse specialist, however, did not.

“There is no real job description for something like this,” she said. “None. But whatever job needs to be done, I try to do it.”

Those currently eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine are encouraged to pre-register online at ourshot.in.gov. For more information about the vaccine or to volunteer at the vaccine clinic, call the Knox County Health Dept. at 812-882-8080.

VCSC begins new year

Members of the Vincennes Community School Corp. Board of Trustees kicked off the new year first thing Monday morning with hopes of a better 2021.

“My desire is that everyone has a much smoother year,” said newly-elected board president Karla Smith following the very brief business meeting.

“I’m so proud of Mr. (Greg) Parsley and the staff and the students for how they’ve handled the obstacles of the last year. It’s been amazing to see everyone work together, and things really have gone as smoothly as they possibly could. We’re still in school, and I think there was a time none of us thought that would happen.”

So Smith said it was her honor to take over the helm of the board and lead them all into a (hopefully) less-chaotic 2021.

“We don’t know what to expect,” she said with a chuckle, “but I’m certainly excitedly to lead everyone through.”

Smith, elected by the other board members, took over for past-president Pat Hutchison at Monday’s meeting, one where board members handle several new-year housekeeping items, such as electing members to various committees and getting a brief financial update.

Board members — and superintendent Greg Parsley — were in agreement that they hope Smith presides over something of an easier year.

“I’m excited,” Parsley said. “I feel like we’ll get ourselves back to normal come the second semester.

“The craziness of 2020 got a lot of things taken away from these kids, and my hope is that some of those begin to come back into play,” he said.

The VCSC was one of two local school corporations that opted to postpone in-person instruction by about 10 days due to the continued spread of COVID-19.

On Jan. 4, students and teachers engaged once again in e-learning instead, offering a kind of forced quarantine in an effort to prevent virus spread following holiday gatherings.

VCSC students will return to in-person instruction on Thursday, and while Parsley said they have no confirmed numbers yet of how many students and teachers have tested positive for COVID-19 during the Christmas break, rough estimates indicate it isn’t all that bad.

“What we’ve asked parents to do is to report positive cases,” he said, indicating that information was then collected by a school nurse.

“It’s minimal,” he said. “But it’s also been on the honor system, and we know that probably not everyone is doing that.

“We’ll have a much better handle on it when students return on Thursday, once we get attendance figured out. But we still don’t expect those numbers to be alarming.”

Knox County on Monday continued its recent slow decline in the number of daily reported cases.

The state Department of Health recorded 17 new cases of COVID-19 here, bringing the total now to 3,154.

An additional 35 cases were reported over the weekend; 45 more cases were reported on Friday.

Regardless, Parsley said he, too, still feels good about his decision to delay the return to in-person instruction.

“We gave it time to get things sorted out,” he said. “We know our students have been working well from home. They’ve done the right thing over this last week and a half.

“And, hopefully, we’ll have (thwarted) a spread of the illness from holiday gatherings.”

Low-key start to Holcomb's new term as Indiana governor

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb had a low-key start to his second term on Monday as the coronavirus pandemic that has dominated the past year continues looming over the state.

The 52-year-old Republican governor, who won a landslide reelection in November, entered office in 2017 with an inaugural ball at a downtown Indianapolis hotel and an inauguration ceremony attended by about 2,000 people at the state fairgrounds coliseum.

His oath-taking ceremony Monday was largely a virtual event in keeping with the COVID-19 precautions that he has urged even as his actions, such as the statewide face mask mandate, have stirred some conservative opposition and will be debated during this year’s legislative session.

Holcomb maintains Indiana’s economy is bouncing back quickly, pointing to how the state’s unemployment rate has dropped from a high of 17.5% during last spring’s coronavirus shutdowns to 5.0% for November, and that 16 straight years of Republican governors put state government in solid financial shape.

Holcomb said he wants to focus during the coming months on distributing the coronavirus vaccines and helping the state’s economy recover with steps such as boosting rural internet service and grants to help businesses modernize.

“I want to make sure that we’re focused on those things that are big ticket items for the reasons why we’ll be able to grow — grow opportunity for people and grow businesses and be that momentum going forward,” Holcomb said in an interview. “We’re watching other states have to make gut-wrenching decisions about cuts they’re gonna make.”

Leaders of the Republican-dominated Legislature praise Holcomb’s actions since the coronavirus outbreak first hit the state in March. That’s when he issued the first of 52 pandemic-related executive orders, including a stay-at-home mandate and those forcing the closure of businesses deemed nonessential during the early weeks of the outbreak, which has killed nearly 9,000 in Indiana and packed hospitals around the state with patients for months.

Many conservatives across the state argue Holcomb’s orders infringed upon individual rights and some Republican legislators want to limit the authority governors have under the state’s emergency powers law.

House Speaker Todd Huston doesn’t criticize Holcomb while saying lawmakers will find an appropriate method to weigh in on extended emergency situations.

“He has really done a fabulous job, I think a tremendous job of going through what are very extraordinary circumstances,” Huston said. “We’ve been blessed with, I think, really strong leadership throughout this, it is just making sure we have legislative input.”

Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch and new state Attorney General Todd Rokita, both Republicans, also began four-year terms Monday.

Holcomb was the state’s little-known lieutenant governor when he became the Republican candidate for governor in 2016 after Donald Trump picked then-Gov. Mike Pence as his vice presidential running mate.

Holcomb has set a less-contentious tone than Pence, avoiding major controversies such as what Pence faced over Indiana’s 2015 religious objections law that opponents maintained sanctioned discrimination against gays.

For instance, Holcomb advocated for the 2019 adoption of a state hate crimes law that quieted criticism despite complaints that it was inadequate for not explicitly covering age, sex or gender identity.

Democrats have criticized Holcomb for not directing more support toward those struggling with lost income during the pandemic, while backing the protection of businesses from possible COVID-19 lawsuits as a top Republican priority.

Senate Democratic leader Greg Taylor of Indianapolis said coronavirus outbreak had also exposed the struggles faced by minorities across the state.

“If this pandemic doesn’t give the governor the platform to address some of those disparities in health care and economics, it just exacerbates the issue,” Taylor said. “And if we don’t do anything about it, it shows that there’s just not an appetite.”

Holcomb said he knows the state faces many ongoing challenges with the coronavirus spread and understands why many people are impatient with business and crowd restrictions.

“I put the pressure back on me and our administration to say, ‘This is not forever. This is temporary,’ ” Holcomb said. “It’s a whole lot longer of a temporary than we ever imagined. But it is what it is and so how do we deal with it responsibly?”