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Head of the class

Though the COVID-19 vaccine distribution is still in phase 1A, which prioritizes healthcare and longterm care workers, Monday afternoon many local educators took to Facebook, sharing images of themselves receiving the Pfizer vaccine at Good Samaritan, sparking confusion amongst some.

County health officer Dr. Alan Stewart explained that while the state is still in phase 1A, Knox County itself had hundreds of vaccines sitting unused, despite efforts to earmark them for healthcare workers first.

“We have an obligation to get the vaccine to all of our people who are medical providers and some first responders, and we did that,” he said.

“We made sure all of our medical offices and hospital workers had an opportunity. I personally spent a day calling dentists, optometrists, private practitioners, as well as first responders in police and fire, and yet we still had vaccine clinic appointment openings,” Stewart said.

Adam Thacker, chief operations officer of Good Samaritan, said during a weekly Facebook live video, while relatively busy, the vaccine clinic which can serve up to 200 people per day, was averaging only about 150 vaccines daily.

After discussions with the Knox County Health Department, Thacker says it was decided that “the teaching community would be an ideal group to target to get them vaccinated before returning to in-person instruction,” which for most will be on Jan. 14.

Monday morning, Stewart sent local school superintendents vaccine registration information, and by Monday afternoon educators were receiving their first of two doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

Stewart says the change meant the vaccine clinic appointments on Monday jumped from 60 to 195, and the health officer says that’s a very good thing.

“There are people who are unhappy with what we did, but we have a clinic that is functioning well and efficiently and vaccine in a freezer not being used, appointment slots not being used,” Stewart said. “Our goal is to get the vaccine into people’s arms, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Part of the rationale for vaccinating educators included both their vulnerability based on the sheer number of people they have close contact with in confined spaces, as well as the importance of keeping schools open in the coming months as the virus rages on.

Too, Stewart explained, area teachers as well as faculty at Vincennes University, could be contacted and mobilized quickly, meaning hundreds more individuals in the county who are protected from the virus themselves and are no longer a risk for carrying and spreading the virus to others.

“We need to get this vaccine to as many people as possible, and doing so protects others as well,” Stewart said.

Though there has been some public blowback about the decision, teachers and school officials are feeling immense relief as they look toward the return to school in the coming days.

Vincennes Community School Corp. superintendent Greg Parsley on Tuesday said, “when I was at the Good Samaritan vaccine clinic yesterday, ‘joy’ would certainly be a word to describe it.

“Some of the educators were absolutely overcome with emotion,” he said.

Though many teachers and administrators will be vaccinated before returning to classrooms and offices, Parsley says VCSC safety protocol will remain intact, including required masking, social distancing and good hand hygiene.

The same is true for North Knox School Corp., says superintendent Dr. Darrel Bobe.

“We’ll be sticking to our original plan, and will keep that first week back after break as an e-learning week before we go back to in-person on January 14,” Bobe said.

And for North Knox educators who choose to be vaccinated, Bobe says he’s excited and thankful they have that opportunity sooner than anticipated.

“I’m just grateful,” he said, adding “grateful for too many people to list.” Both public school superintendents also realize it will still be months before school returns to relative normalcy.

“As I have said before, we know this journey is not over by any stretch of the imagination, but there is now a light at the end of the tunnel,” Parsley said.

Local health officials anticipate much greater demand for the vaccine when the state moves to phase 1B in the coming weeks and say getting as many essential workers vaccinated now will free up supply during the next phase.

“By allowing teachers to fill these unused appointment slots now, we are making more availability for other essential workers when phase 1B begins,” Thacker said.

But, he added, Good Samaritan is still prioritizing phase 1A access “and continues to advocate for all healthcare workers across Daviess, Pike and Knox counties to get vaccinated.”

Despite some pushback, Stewart says he stands by the decision to offer the vaccine to educators. Some police officers, too, began receiving the vaccine on Tuesday.

“There will always be people who feel we should have done something different, but our community is now safer than it was,” Stewart said.

“We had a clinic not being fully utilized. To call the state and say we were sending back unused vaccines is not an option I would consider.”


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Commissioners hit pause on awarding jail room contract

The Knox County Commissioners on Monday took another step toward building a special quarantine room inside the Knox County Jail.

The commissioners, who met at the Pantheon, 428 Main St., for their final meeting of 2020, had before them two bids for the jail quarantine room construction, one each from Wolfe Construction, Vincennes, and Terre Haute’s Garmong Construction, the same company that recently oversaw the 4-year, $40 million renovation of the Vincennes Community School Corp.’s neighborhood elementary schools.

Local engineering and architectural firm RQAW did the design for the quarantine room and let the project out for bids.

Commission president Kellie Streeter said RQAW sought bids from eight contractors; only those two contractors returned prices.

And even then there’s been a slight snag.

The commissioners were unsure which company to award the construction contract to.

In an effort to save money, the commissioners opted to seek bids both for general construction and two alternate — or optional — projects, one each for furniture and different materials for the construction of interior walls (concrete block or drywall with a kind of safety mesh), all in an effort to get the lowest, overall price.

The intent, Streeter said, was to essentially piecemeal the project, the transformation of an old rec room, together in the most cost effective way.

But when the bids returned, Garmong’s bid for general construction was the low bid; Wolfe, however, submitted the low bid for the furniture and concrete block walls, which is what the commissioners have decided they want.

The commissioners were left unsure on how best to proceed.

Awarding one company the general construction bid and the other the alternate projects would be cheapest, but county attorney Andrew Porter wanted time to review exactly how the bid specifications read and whether or not the county could award two contracts instead of one.

“It’s all going to depend on the language of those bid specs,” Streeter said, “and we’re looking at that now.

“It’s all coming down to legalities.”

For now, the commissioners awarded the best — and lowest —overall bid, which came from Wolfe Construction, but if it’s possible to split it up, they will likely meet again to amend their motion and vote again.

The commissioners months ago opted to move forward with construction of a special quarantine room at the jail. Once finished, which isn’t likely to be for some weeks, it will be used to house inmates during a quarantine period before putting them in the general population.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the county’s hand, but local officials believe it will prove useful in the future.

To pay for it, the county is using its share of CARES Act funds. They anticipate it to cost upwards of $220,000.

This spring, Indiana received $2.4 billion from the federal CARES Act, money meant to bolster communities fighting hard against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Knox County received $1.2 million.

Sheriff Doug Vantlin, too, oversaw the purchase of two new body scanners, one each for the jail and for community corrections.

The machines, valued at more than $135,000 apiece, are meant to keep jailers and staff safe from the potential spread of COVID-19 as they require less direct contact with an inmate.


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Elkhorn Road project on schedule, set to let in July

A long-awaited facelift of Elkhorn Road will get under way this summer as originally scheduled.

County highway superintendent Benji Boyd on Monday took before the county commissioners an amendment to their contract with the Indiana Department of Transportation, one that actually allocates more money to the overall project.

Right of way acquisition has cost more, Boyd explained. Estimates called for just over $68,000, but the actual cost has been more than $104,000, commissioners learned.

But INDOT, according to the contract amendment, will pick up the additional cost.

“It was a little bit more, but they’ve picked that up,” Boyd explained.

In March of 2018, the county was awarded $3.2 million in Federal Highway Administration construction funds, which are administered through INDOT, to tackle improvements on Elkhorn Road, ones expected to make the area much safer for all the industrial traffic coming from the U.S. 41 Industrial Park, which houses Farbest Foods Inc. and Futaba Indiana of America, among others.

The project will essentially be a total rebuild of the portion of the road from U.S. 41 to the CSX Railroad crossing. It will be widened, visibility improved, and will include a major upgrade to the intersection with Old Decker Road.

The project includes some minor work by the railroad as well, including upgrades to pavement markings, signage and lighting.

Major improvements have been discussed for years because Elkhorn Road wasn’t built to handle all the traffic that now comes in and out of the industrial park. The problem, primarily, is with truck traffic and motorists leaving the industrial park by way of Elkhorn and then crossing the median to travel south on U.S. 41.

The intersection wasn’t designed for those kinds of maneuvers; the grade is inadequate and visibility is poor, officials say.

An INDOT study also found that there was a likelihood of frequent accidents at the intersection and motorists traveling through the area are at greater risk.

But long ago county officials realized they couldn’t alone fund what needed to be done, so the commissioners applied for funding as part of INDOT’s 2022 Call for Projects.

Members of the Knox County Development Corp. back then threw their support behind the county’s efforts, and commission president Kellie Streeter indicated this week that those conversations have been ongoing.

It’s possible, she said Monday, that the KCDC could provide some funding for the county’s 20% match.

Boyd said he expects the contract to be let on July 11. Work typically then begins about two months later.

He said he expects “a lot of activity” on this project next year.


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