Knox County’s confirmed caseload of COVID-19 continues its upward climb.
Friday brought the area’s third coronavirus-related death, and on Monday, officials with the Vincennes Community School Corp. reported another two cases at Lincoln High School.
The county now stands at 184 confirmed cases.
County health officer Dr. Alan Stewart said with community spread increasing, tracking cases — and placing the appropriate people in quarantine — is a becoming a challenge.
“It’s difficult to give accurate numbers anymore. We’re aggressively trying to keep up, but it’s becoming almost impossible,” he said.
Knox County currently has 42 active cases of COVID-19, but Stewart said there are likely at least two others that have are likely to be confirmed.
And that number doesn’t include those individuals residing in local long-term care facilities.
In recent weeks, the county has seen spread of the virus amongst nursing home residents, first responders, healthcare workers and residents in the South Knox area.
The county’s third death was reportedly someone living in a local long-term care facility.
The two previous deaths were among men over the age of 65; both had been in the hospital for quite some time, according to local health officials.
Oak Village in Oaktown reported on Monday that it had one employee test positive for COVID-19, and the Salvation Army of Vincennes closed its drive-thru food bank this week due to the possible exposure of an employee there. They hope to reopen next week, according to a post on their Facebook page.
There are now five cases at LHS. Officials with the VCSC say these two newest cases, both reported on Monday, are in students who did not participate in any extracurricular activities.
Those students both last attended classes last Monday and Wednesday respectively. And both are reportedly quarantined at home and “feeling better,” according to a statement issued by the VCSC.
South Knox superintendent Tim Grove said a kindergarten student has tested positive for the virus there.
The student was sent home last week due to the appearance of symptoms; now that the student has tested positive, the entire kindergarten class, he said, has been placed in a 10-day quarantine.
Grove said, per the state mask mandate, students in kindergarten through second grade are not required to wear masks in the classroom.
“So we couldn’t limit how much contact they had with one another,” Grove said.
South Knox currently has one teacher out on quarantine that tested positive for COVID-19 before classes began last week; two other staff members are in quarantine as well due to exposure.
During a weekly Facebook Live show, Dr. Scott Stine, chief medical officer at Good Samaritan Hospital, began by acknowledging just how much had changed since the previous week’s broadcast.
“Since we spoke with everyone last week, we’ve had local deaths as well as some cases show up in our nursing home facilities,” he said.
Adam Thacker, chief operations officer at Good Samaritan, also pointed to the spike in the 7-day positivity rate for Knox County.
“This morning we’re at 13.8% positivity rate,” said Thacker, which indicates the percentage of confirmed positive tests over the course of the past 7 days.
In the early months of the outbreak, Knox County’s rate hovered closer to 4%; 13.8% is the highest its been so far.
Stewart, exasperated by the spike in cases, says this could all be over if residents would simply wear protective face masks properly, practice social distancing and quarantine themselves if feeling unwell or showing any symptoms of the virus.
“The people we lost, those deaths could have been prevented,” Stewart said.
Thacker and Stine echoed the importance of masking up during their Facebook Live show Monday morning.
Stine pointed to the importance of following the advice of credible, expert sources as opposed to “a lot of garbage spread around the internet” that falsely claim masks make people sick or don’t help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Citing recent results of a Duke University study, Stine said simply, “The answer is: masks help. There is no question. When we wear our masks in the community, we are protecting others.”
Thacker, who pointed out that the masks must be worn over both the nose and mouth to be truly effective, added that masking is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
“It’s uncomfortable until you get used to it. So, we need to get comfortable with it and create those habits,” he said.
Despite coronavirus cases climbing across the county and affecting local public school systems, Dr. Stewart says they’re actually doing well with masking and quarantining.
“With the work they’re doing, we will keep schools open right now. They’re being very careful, but it’s a challenge,” he said.
And Stine says he’s inspired by how well young people are handling the mask mandate, noting that they seem to have adapted relatively quickly.
But he had a word of advice for adults.
“Please be cautious around people. Mask up. Our kids are back in school, and we would like to see them stay there if at all possible,” he said.
Despite three COVID-related deaths in Knox County in just one week, many residents still refuse to wear masks when inside public places and private businesses, health officials noted.
Without taking adequate precautions, residents can expect the number of confirmed cases and deaths to rise. And, the increasing caseload means more testing availability will be necessary. Stewart says the county will likely soon be receiving a state-funded grant to open a drive-thru testing site by early September. The county’s health department will work in partnership with Good Samaritan Hospital and Vincennes University to have personnel trained and on-site in the coming weeks.
At least 86 more Hoosiers have died from COVID-19 since last Monday, and Indiana has also confirmed 750 new cases of the respiratory disease since Friday, according to the state’s COVID-19 Data Report.
The additional deaths bring the number of Hoosiers confirmed to have died from the virus to 2,924, according to the Indiana State Department of Health.
Indiana’s newly diagnosed COVID-19 cases raise the state’s confirmed count to more than 80,000.
Locals with Section 8 vouchers are struggling to find places to rent, Jackie Scott, the Vincennes Housing Authority’s Section 8 director, told members of its board of commissioners on Monday.
Currently, Scott said she has about 15 families out looking for apartments or homes to rent; they’re largely looking for 2- or 3-bedroom units, which are hard to come by even when there isn’t an ongoing global pandemic.
“People just aren’t moving right now,” Scott told the commissioners. “Landlords are showing.
“People are trying. They’re just not finding anything.”
Once an applicant is approved for a Section 8 voucher, they typically have 60 days to find a place to rent before that voucher expires and they have to start the process — which requires everything from an interview to a background check — all over again.
Due to COVID-19, Scott said she is extending those deadlines by 30 days.
“So that will give them a total of 90 days,” she said. “I hope that will help.
“But I’ve also got ten more families coming on this week. They’ll be looking, too.”
Both Scott and VHA executive director Linda Fredrick also reported Monday — the commissioners met in the recreation room at Piankeshaw Place, 501 Hart St., so they could social distance — that, combined, they’d received about $170,000 in federal CARES Act money.
The funds, Fredrick explained, are meant to help the housing authority in a variety of COVID-related ways, but they’ve earmarked some of it to go to help both residents in its four properties as well as Section 8 voucher holders with school-related costs, specifically to offset the price of virtual education.
Local students are often provided Chromebooks for virtual or e-learning from area school corporations, but there are sometimes other costs associated with the curriculum itself — virtual education fees, textbook fees, etc.
“And we can pay those fees for them,” Fredrick said. “We can also help with things like Internet service.
“That ways families can pay to participate in virtual learning, if that’s what they want to do.”
Fredrick also said they are working closely with social workers at the school corporations to ensure the funds get into appropriate hands as the expenditures will be audited at some point.
“And you have to be on Section 8 or in public housing to be eligible,” Fredrick said.
Fredrick also on Monday said the housing authority hasn’t yet seen any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in its high-rise buildings, specifically Piankeshaw Place and Old French Towne.
“I applaud them because I think a lot of them did take it very seriously,” she said of the residents, adding that the housing authority has a strict universal masking policy in all of its properties.
“They’ve been cooperative, and it’s paid off.”
Fredrick did, however, say that there have been positive cases at its family sites, Bowman Terrace and Presidential Estates. She did not say how many.
The VHA office at Piankeshaw Place remains closed to the public, but Fredrick said they are using large spaces, like its rec room, to process applications and meet with families.
“Our clients are notified that they have to wear masks. If they don’t have one, we provide one,” she said. “And they have to wear gloves, too, because they have papers they have to sign.
“When we’re done, everything is wiped down so we’re ready for the next person. We’re meeting the needs of our residents and staying safe.”
In other business, Fredrick gave an update on some ongoing capital improvement projects.
They will soon proceed with a storm water drainage project at a four-unit area at Presidential Estates, one prone to flash flooding. They also plan to install some new privacy fencing between the units as a kind of “experiment.”
If it works and the tenants like it, the housing authority may proceed later with doing all of the units there.
The housing authority, too, is moving forward with replacing both the interior and exterior door locks at Piankeshaw Place, Old French Towne and Presidential Estates.
And a project to replace all of the exterior signs at the housing authority’s four properties as well as Sunset Court will finally soon get underway, Fredrick said.
That particular endeavor — the near $50,000 contract was awarded to local contractor Sure Clean in September — was delayed due to COVID-19.
“But I look for us to start within the next 2-3 weeks,” Fredrick said, adding that the necessary city permits were recently secured.
“We should have our new signs by Christmas.”
The Southern Indiana Development Commission has received $400,000 in federal CARES Act funds, money it hopes to use to bring additional improvements to Vincennes.
Greg Jones, Loogootee-based SIDC’s, executive director, announced Monday that the organization — which often helps city and county officials here to pursue state and federal grant opportunities — received money from the U.S. Department of Commerce meant to boost economic development programs critical to helping Indiana respond to COVID-19.
The funds, some $3.6 million, went largely to Hoosier economic development corporations, planning commissions and organizations like SIDC to use and disperse in the communities they serve as they saw fit.
Jones said the SIDC’s $400,000 will be used to build a Regional Resiliency Plan.
“We’ll be looking at how best we can help the governments, the businesses in our five-county area,” Jones said. “Vincennes will be a part of that.”
Many of the details surrounding the expenditure of this money, Jones said, are still being determined, but one part that is certain is that they want to expand their staff at SIDC. The more staff they have, he said, the more grant opportunities they can find for the counties they serve.
There is a lot of federal funding out there right now, he said, if they have the resources to look for and go after it.
“So this will give us another person to help develop those projects and find funding for them,” Jones said. “Sometimes it’s easy to find the funds but hard to build a project around them,
“So we want to find someone who can help communities take an idea and build it into a fully-developed project, get it funded, find the local match and implement it. Some (communities) will be ready for a project, others will need help in developing a project for later. But our hope is that this person will do so much that we can maintain that employment after the grant dollars are gone.”
SIDC will begin by doing a study to determine how best to help their five-county region.
“We need to figure out what actions we should take,” Jones said. “Do communities need Revolving Loan funds, more access to capital? Or do we need to be helping Black-owned or minority-owned businesses.
“We want to look a variety of strategies,” he said, reinforcing that the idea behind the money is to make communities more resilient to the economic damage brought on by the continuing spread of COVID-19.
Jones, too, said they are working with agencies, specifically the Ball State University Business Institute, to get a better feel on what resiliency actually looks like in rural Indiana versus its larger cities.
“But Vincennes is always a good candidate,” he said. “You can do projects in your downtown, projects in the industrial park. We can even look at walkability, those kinds of things. There are Brownfield sites that could be cleaned up and developed, too.
“We can look at all of those things. Any one of them could be a project we could take on if we had the staff to do it.”
City and county officials are also trying to spend about $1.5 million of their own CARES Act funds.
County commission president Kellie Streeter in June pushed for the formation of a committee of local officials to look at how well they have handled the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They looked at everything from the purchase of additional Personal Protective Equipment to technology upgrades, things such as laptops for employees who would need to work from home in the event of another surge.
The county has since purchased everything from $100,000 in PPE to $155,000 in CPR machines. Also on the list is the construction of a quarantine room at the Knox County Jail, a near $170,000 mobile dispatch unit, laptops and, the largest purchase, two body scanners totaling $270,000.
In total, the county will spend just over $1 million.
Once the purchases are made, the county will be reimbursed.