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Local health officials on board with state's roll-out of COVID-19 vaccine

State officials on Wednesday announced that they would continue taking a data-driven approach to the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, opening eligibility up to those over the age of 60 next week and those over 50 in the weeks following.

Local officials believe it’s the right way to go.

“If you ask 100 people about the vaccine roll-out, you’ll get 100 opinions,” Thacker said, “but if we continue centralizing our decisions around data, it removes those biases and concerns.

“So, yes, I think approaching it from a prevention of morbidity and mortality is the soundest and most ethical and clinical way to approach this.”

Indiana health officials next week are expected to expand coronavirus vaccines to Hoosiers aged 60 to 65 as they continue to sidestep federal recommendations and delay the timeline for teachers and other essential workers.

The decrease in the age of eligibility will happen “as soon as possible,” once vaccine becomes available, the state health department’s chief medical officer, Dr. Lindsay Weaver, announced Wednesday.

Hoosiers aged 50 to 59, as well as those under age 50 who suffer from certain comorbidities, will then be on deck, Weaver said, although there are no specific timelines yet in place.

“After we reach age 60, when we have enough vaccine and have vaccinated an appropriate portion of the 60 to 65 age group, we will then incrementally expand eligibility,” Weaver said, noting it will take time to vaccine a group that includes some 432,000 people.

Both Thacker and county health officer Dr. Alan Stewart say the state’s approach — while criticized by some — does seem to be working; caseloads and death rates are dropping across the state, as well as right here in Knox County.

New case daily totals have remained in the single digits. The infection rate and number of active cases continues to fall as well, and Knox County remains listed as yellow —or the second-to-least severe category — on the state’s COVID-19 dashboard.

Thacker said Knox County represents a “microcosm” of what the entire state has and is experiencing in terms of COVID-19 morbidity.

“Fifteen% of our positives have been in those 70 and older, but that same population represents 80% of our total deaths,” he said.

“So the state’s approach to the vaccine roll out aligns with Knox County’s own data.”

Stewart, too, said the state has done “a good job” in determining who should first receive the COVID-19 vaccine. The approach, he said, is both “scientifically and politically correct,” and as a result, both the state and Knox County in recent weeks have seen decreases in the number of new cases and hospitalizations.

“So the vaccine is helping,” he said. “(The roll-out) might not be exactly what everybody wants right now, but it’s working. It’s taking a scientific approach and keeping things organized in a chaotic climate.”

Dr. Kristina Box, the state health commissioner, said Indiana is currently receiving about 100,000 doses of vaccine each week. But because that supply “remains limited,” the current eligibility hierarchy for those aged 65 and up will continue at least through this week.

“This way, we can fully analyze the number of second dose appointments against our existing and our projected inventory,” Box said. “Our goal is to ensure that we have all of these second doses covered before expanding further.”

Indiana officials have based shot eligibility on age rather than moving up teachers and other essential workers as other states have done. They cite statistics that those ages 60 and older represent 93% of Indiana’s COVID-19 deaths and 64% of hospitalizations, arguing that vaccinating those people will have the biggest impact.

Looking ahead at the 50 and older population, the state’s top health officials maintained the age group makes up just over 35% of Indiana’s population, but accounts for 80% of COVID-19 hospitalizations and 97.6% of deaths

The course of action is in contradiction to guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, which place teachers ahead of those 65 to 74 years old, along with grocery store and public transit workers, and others.

“We’re being very methodical about this,” Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb said Wednesday. “The way that we’re scheduling appointments here is accommodating, both to the consumer — the person wanting to get the shot in their arm — and our supply.”

So far, 737,000 Hoosiers been vaccinated against COVID-19, according to state health department statistics. Of those, 258,000 have received both doses.

Locally, more than 6,200 have received the first dose; just under 3,000 people are now fully vaccinated.

Nearly 1.4 million vaccination appointments have been scheduled since December, Box said. Sixty-eight% of eligible health care workers and first responders have so far received or scheduled vaccine, Box said. In addition, nearly 81,000 doses have been administered to residents and staff at the state’s long term care facilities.

Here in Knox County, Thacker said the Good Samaritan COVID-19 vaccination clinic continues to receive about 1,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine — which is being limited largely to hospitals because it requires ultra-cold storage — and more are possible in the coming weeks.

Currently, he said, the hospital is averaging about 1,700 shots per week.

“And just like a lot of other clinics across the state, we can do more if we have more vaccine,” he said, adding that Good Samaritan’s team is “ready to take on” the lower age groups in the coming weeks.

The county health department’s COVID-19 vaccine clinic located at Community United Methodist Church on Hart Street Road, however, is averaging just about 400 doses of the Moderna vaccine each week and will likely limit itself to only second doses during the entire month of March, officials there have said, unless supply unexpectedly increases.

Thacker, however, is hopeful as the FDA is expected to grant emergency authorization to the new Johnson and Johnson vaccine by the end of the month.

That vaccine, he indicated, is a game changer as it only requires basic refrigeration and reaches full efficacy with just one dose.

“It’s already being used in other countries and has good safety and efficacy data,” he said. “It has the potential to make a big impact in the vaccination of Hoosiers.”

The state Department of Health on Wednesday also announced that Indiana has surpassed 12,000 coronavirus-related deaths after the state’s three deadliest months during the pandemic.

Officials added 52 recent coronavirus deaths to the statewide total, pushing it to 12,001 fatalities including both confirmed and presumed COVID-19 infections.

Indiana’s rates of new COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths have declined steeply since peaking in early December, but the state still recorded more than 1,900 coronavirus deaths during January. That followed more than 9,000 coronavirus deaths last year that contributed to a one-year jump of 16% in statewide mortality.

State health officials, meanwhile, have lowered the risk level for COVID-19 spread in more counties.

The state Department of Health’s weekly tracking map updated Wednesday labels only Switzerland County in far southeastern Indiana in the highest-risk red category. That is down from 73 of the 92 counties in that category four weeks ago.

This week’s map lists 40 counties in the next-riskiest orange category.

Staying safe when the mercury drops

With temperatures over the weekend expected to plummet into the single — possibly even below zero — digits, local emergency responders and the Centers for Disease Control are offering many ways to keep you and your family safe.

Local fire officials repeatedly warn against the use of secondary heating sources like space heaters and aged heating blankets.

Making sure your smoke and CO2 detectors are up to date — with fresh batteries and a device no more than 10 years old — is also imperative.

If you are going to use a secondary heating source, make sure space heaters have automatic shut off switches, and keep them away from flammable materials like curtains or blankets. Also never place them on top of a piece of furniture, near water or leave children unattended nearby.

Use fireplaces, wood stoves and kerosene heaters only in properly-vented areas.

In addition, make sure the cord of an electric space heater is not a tripping hazard, but do not run the cord under carpets or rugs. And avoid using extension cords completely.

And in an effort to conserve heat, avoid unnecessarily opening windows and doors, close off unused rooms and stuff towels or rags into cracks.

In the event of a power failure, be sure to use flashlights or lanterns rather than candles, if possible.

Check on your elderly neighbors and family members, too, during extreme cold, the CDC says. Older adults often make less body heat because of a slower metabolism and less physical activity.

If you are over 65 years of age, check the temperature in your home often during extremely cold weather.

Bitter cold weather also poses a risk to the water pipes in your home. Frozen pipes can rupture or break and cause flooding.

To prevent damage to your home, leave all water taps slightly open so they drip continuously, keep the temperature in your home warm — although not excessively warm; set thermostats to a reasonable 65-66 degrees to avoid exorbitant heating bills — and open cabinet doors in the kitchen and bathroom to allow warm air in.

If your pipes do freeze, do not thaw them with a torch or open flame. Thaw the pipes slowly with warm air from an electric hair dryer.

The CDC recommends staying indoors during extremely cold weather. Make any trips outside as brief as possible, but if you do have to spend time outside, wear multiple layers and make sure all exposed skin is covered by wearing hats, scarves, full sleeves, gloves and water-resistant coats and boots.

It’s also important to stay dry, remove wet clothing promptly when returning to the warm indoors, and don’t ignore shivering as it’s an important sign that your body is beginning to lose heat. Constant shivering is a sign that it is time to go inside.

Other signs of hypothermia include exhaustion, exhaustion or feeling very tired, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech, and drowsiness. In babies, signs include bright red, cold skin, and very low energy.

If you notice any of these signs, take the person’s temperature. If it is below 95° F, the situation is an emergency — get medical attention immediately.

Signs of frostbite include a white or grayish-yellow skin area, skin that feels unusually firm or waxy, and numbness. If you notice signs of frostbite, seek medical care.

Local emergency response officials also commonly warn people to stay off ice during the bitter cold; just because a small pond or lake looks to be frozen over doesn’t mean the ice is deep enough to hold your weight.

Also, many areas to the south of Knox County received significant icing as a result of recent winter systems, so if traveling, be sure to listen to travel advisories from the National Weather Service.

Ending Indiana gun permits could cost police $3.5 million

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana legislators would face coming up with $3.5 million a year for local police agencies if they repeal the state law requiring a permit to carry a handgun in public.

An Indiana House committee heard testimony Wednesday on a bill that would allow any resident to carry a handgun unless for reasons including previous felony convictions, being under a restraining order or having dangerous mental illnesses.

Supporters of the bill argue that requiring gun permits undermine Second Amendment protections and that violent criminals don’t obey the law. Bill sponsor Republican Rep. Ben Smaltz of Auburn said he expected the Legislature would dedicate the $3.5 million in permit applications fees that police and sheriff departments now collect and spend on equipment and training.

Indiana State Police Superintendent Doug Carter and leaders of the state police chiefs association and Indiana Fraternal Order of Police spoke against the proposal, saying it would eliminate a valuable screening tool identifying those who shouldn’t possess handguns.

Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb was noncommittal when asked Wednesday about the proposal that has failed during previous years in the Legislature.

“I’ll be watching it and paying close attention to what does or does not come to my desk and I’ll be very clear when I start to see the bill’s language become a bit clearer as well,” Holcomb said.

The committee could vote next week on whether to advance the proposal to the full House.

USB looks ahead to more projects

Officials with Vincennes Water Utilities are looking ahead to a pair of major upgrades.

Kirk Bouchie, the utility’s general manager, told members of the Utilities Service Board Wednesday during their regular monthly meeting that he has entered into talks with Midwest Engineering, Loogootee, about the infrastructure updates that will be necessary — or at least ideal — in regards to the second and third phases of a multi-year, multi-million dollar effort to improve Main Street, an effort being taken on by the city’s Redevelopment Commission.

Phase I, which was an overhaul of Main Street from 22nd Street out to Jamestown Apartments, was finished more than a year ago; the second two phases will take improvements all the way out to Richard Bauer Drive.

Phase II and III are likely to be taken on together in 2022, although the former is being paid for largely with a near $4 million state grant.

Bouchie said the utility’s focus will likely be in replacing some old asbestos cement pipe between Kimmell Road to just past Henry Sievers Road.

“We’ll want to replace that with iron,” he told the board, adding that the existing line, too, is “on the wrong side” of Main Street and will need to be moved over to connect into upgrades made as part of Phase I.

“It’s just going to make sense for us to get in there and get that done,” he said.

Bouchie didn’t yet report a possible cost to members of the USB, only that he is coordinating efforts with Midwest Engineering and the city.

That contract, he said, is likely to be let later this year with construction in the spring of 2022.

City officials and members of the Redevelopment Commission celebrated the competition of Main Street Phase I in the fall of 2019. That project included the addition of a left-hand turn lane onto Kimmell Road and improved storm-water drainage between Mantle Ditch and the U.S. 41 overpass, an area that is prone to flooding.

It also now boasts two, 12-foot driving lanes with additional sidewalks, bike lanes and lighting.

Phase II will pick up there and head out to Sievers Road and includes the redesign of the convoluted intersection with Felt King Road.

RDC members sold $5 million in bonds to pay for Phase I, but city officials received a federal grant to help pay for 80% of the estimated $4 million cost of Phase II.

They hope to also pursue Main Street Phase III, which would then take the project on out to George Rogers Clark Middle School at Richard Bauer Drive, also in 2022.

The RDC will likely have to foot the bill for the entirety of Phase III.

Also on the utility’s radar is an overhaul of a large portion of Washington Avenue coming up in 2023.

City officials announced two years ago that they’d been successful in securing a $5.7 million federal grant to pay for the long-awaited reconstruction of Washington Avenue from Emison Avenue near the Washington Learning Academy, owned by the Vincennes Community School Corp., north to Belle Crossing, which includes the area around Gregg Park.

Combined with a 20% match from the city itself, the project will result in a nearly $7 million improvement.

Washington Avenue Phase I — city officials do hope to eventually take on a second, southern-most section — will include a totally new road bed as well as curbs and gutters, bike lanes, new lighting, sidewalks, better storm water drainage and sanitary sewers.

But water line improvements, Bouchie said, should actually be minimal.

“Fortunately, we shouldn’t have a lot of conflicts as a result of that project,” he said, adding that there will, however, be some sewer work necessary.

The biggest part of that project, he said, will be in improving storm water drainage through that area, but much of that work will be covered by the grant.

“There will be some smaller changes to prepare for that road replacement,” he said, “but for the most part, it will with storm water, and that is covered by these kinds of grants where as other (water needs) are not.”