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Vincennes University’s Justin Archer, center, tries to control a rebound from Kankakee’s Chaz Hinds (25) Saturday at the P.E. Complex.

Blazers in comeback mode

State opens vaccinations to those 65 and older

The county’s COVID-19 vaccination clinics are preparing for yet another busy week as state officials on Monday opened shots up to anyone over the age of 65.

Adam Thacker, chief operating officer at Good Samaritan, said via a Facebook live event on Monday that Indiana continues to be a leader in terms of vaccine distribution. In recent weeks, too, Knox County has led amongst other Hoosier counties in terms of the percentage, per capita, of people vaccinated.

On Monday, nearly 14% of Knox County residents had received at least the first dose of the vaccine.

As a result, the federal government, Thacker said, announced that it would increase vaccine allocations to Indiana by 16% — that could mean an influx of as many as 95,000 vaccines per week.

“But spread across 92 counties, don’t anticipate thousands more vaccines here alone,” he said.

Even still, things at Good Samaritan’s COVID-19 vaccine clinic, located in an old rehab unit just inside the Sixth Street entrance, are moving along well. The clinic continues to vaccinate roughly 300 people per day, and with the new increase, Thacker said they anticipate adding as many as 50 more per day.

Currently, the hospital’s clinic, which is administering the Pfizer vaccine, is booked about a week in advance, Thacker said.

“So don’t expect to walk in or schedule a vaccine the same day,” he said. “You have to plan for it.”

And while the county’s other clinic, operated by the Knox County Health Department and Community United Methodist Church at 1528 Hart Street Road, is also set up to do as many as 300 vaccinations in a day, current supply has limited it greatly.

Betty Lankford, the county’s COVID-19 nurse and clinic coordinator, said they have 400 vaccinations for this week; she is having to save some, however, as state health officials have indicated supply will level out — or even decrease — during the month of March. In order to make sure they can give the necessary second doses, she is having to watch her numbers carefully.

“It’s frustrating,” she said, “but that’s the way it has to be because I don’t think they’re going to give me any more (vaccines).”

Lankford said next week will be the first week that the health department clinic begins giving people their second doses of the Moderna vaccine. Health department clinics being operated remotely are limited to the Moderna vaccine as it, unlike the Pfizer vaccine, does not require ultra cold storage.

It’s possible, if they only do second doses during the month of March, Lankford will close the clinic two days per week to give her nurses and volunteers a break.

That said, whenever state officials are able to increase the supply of Moderna vaccines, the health department clinic is ready to go.

“We are prepared,” she said. “We have plenty of greeters doing a great job of screening, plenty of nurses. And that’s been my goal all along, to be ready.”

Indiana health officials announced on Monday that the COVID-19 vaccine would be made available to those between ages 65 and 69. Previously, it had only been open to those 70 and older as well as health care workers and first-responders.

The vaccine is available at no cost. Appointments are available in all 92 counties and can be made at the website www.ourshot.in.gov or by calling the state’s 2-1-1 telephone assistance service.

Indiana officials have based shot eligibility on age rather than moving up teachers — although many teachers here in Knox County have already been vaccinated — 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.

Thacker and Dr. Scott Stine with Good Samaritan on Monday agreed, citing a significant drop in local cases per day — on Monday there were just 3 — and because people who are hospitalized are generally not as sick as they were at the height of the coronavirus surge.

“The most at-risk population is being protected based on how this vaccine is being rolled out,” Thacker said.

County health officer Dr. Alan Stewart has said he agrees and that he doesn’t expect local cases of confirmed COVID-19 to increase dramatically again based on the number of people who have already had it and those who are being vaccinated.

“There is no doubt are declining numbers are due to the number of people being vaccinated,” Stine said.

Stine, too, pointed to the county having about 100 active cases; it’s been months, he said, since the active caseload was that low.

“We are seeing trends moving in a very positive direction,” Thacker added.

That said, residents shouldn’t get lazy.

“That doesn’t not mean you get to abandon masks or social distancing or good hand hygiene,” Thacker said. “We need all of those (practices) to stay in place as we move through this cold, winter season where the potential for another surge does remain.”

Experts continue dispelling COVID myths one year on

Knox County Health Officer Dr. Alan Stewart says variations of any virus are to be expected, but some of the variant strains of COVID-19 are cause for concern, making the urgency of vaccination all the more pressing.

He and other medical experts and researchers around the world are on a mission to dispel misinformation and vaccinate as many people as possible in order to achieve herd immunity against the novel coronavirus.

Though viral and not bacterial, Stewart says COVID-19 is a little bit like a bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics.

“The tighter you try to control the virus, the more stimulated it is to try to adapt to survive,” meaning it will find ways to mutate and spread, making vaccination a dire need in the fight against the pandemic.

For more than an hour last week, Stewart, alongside the county’s COVID-19 nurse and clinic coordinator coordinator, Betty Lankford, sat inside the county’s new mobile command unit, being briefed about the latest findings surrounding the coronavirus, its mutations and vaccination efforts.

The two listened closely as Dr. David Hopper, an immunologist living in Naples, Florida, reviewed a timeline of information about SARS-CoV-2.

Hopper, who in the 1970s worked alongside Dr. Anthony Fauci at the National Institutes of Health, says coronaviruses were not complete unknowns before 2020.

“We all have probably had a coronavirus at some point,” he said, explaining that there are four specific types of the upper respiratory tract coronaviruses, with two main pathways — the alpha and the beta.

“This virus happens to be the beta — as are SARS11 and MERS,” Hopper said of the zoonotic infection that is transferred from animal to human.

Most likely, Hopper says, SARS-CoV-2 originated in bats and then moved to an intermediate host before infecting humans.

“Dr. Gregory Poland, an immunologist at the Mayo Clinic, visited the meat market in China where the virus originated, and the conditions were just abominable. The stench was overwhelming,” Hopper said of the market that utilized neither ice nor refrigeration of fresh, raw meat.

Poland and other researchers say the coronavirus most likely spread from a bat to a pangolin — a sort of anteater with scales — before the infected pangolin was consumed by humans.

“One thing I want to stress is, based on the genome, the virus unequivocally did not come from a laboratory in Wuhan,” said Hopper of a common conspiracy theory. “We know that for a fact.”

Fighting myths and conspiracy theories is something Drs. Hopper and Stewart have become accustomed to over the course of the past year — pushing back against everything from crude pseudoscience to the egocentric misgiving that Bill Gates is inserting microchips in vaccines that will track every move of the inoculated individual.

Instead, as early as January 3, 2020, researchers around the world were already collaborating to understand and mount an attack against COVID-19, but political leaders weren’t necessarily taking that same path, adding to the misgivings about the virus, the doctors say.

“It was very obvious that the scientific community was cooperating while the political world was busy fighting,” Stewart said.

With a laugh, Hopper added, “we won’t get into that, but it was indeed a factor.”

It was the first week in 2020 when Chinese researchers published the entire genome — all the genetic material — of COVID-19 on the internet, allowing virologists and immunologists around the globe access to the information.

Thanks to the internet, virus samples no longer have to be shipped across continents to be studied.

“We really have to give huge credit to the researchers around the world who collaborated — I have never seen anything like this collaboration, ever,” Hopper said.

While technology and collaboration were two contributing factors to the warp speed of identifying and understanding COVID-19, its similarity to viruses in the same family has also been significant.

COVID-19, as part of the SARS-2 family is roughly 75% similar to SARS-1 viruses in its genetic makeup.

“SARS virus and virus types have been around for some time, as have the ways of dealing with it,” Hopper explained.

The way modern science “deals with” these viruses is primarily through mRNA vaccines — a genetic material that contains instructions for making proteins.

“The mRNA research started in 1990, and this is why in the warp speed of ten months, we could move forward to develop a vaccine. It was not developed from scratch,” Hopper said.

What scientists learned 30 years ago about warding off strains of SARS-1, has been utilized in the development of vaccines for COVID-19, like those from Pfizer and Moderna.

Thanks to public health commercials and websites like Indiana’s COVID-19 dashboard, people are familiar with the image of the spiky virus particle, and it’s those spikes, in part, that are key to fighting the pandemic.

Because SARS-1 and 2 are primarily the same, Hopper explained that they have the same kind of coding for their spike proteins as COVID-19.

Those spike proteins look for receptors in human cells so they can attach themselves and then multiply. The idea then is that if there is a way to block the attachment, the virus has no host to hold onto and therefore can’t replicate itself.

“Everything we do for the vaccine is to block that spike protein, and that’s what the antibodies in the vaccine do,” Hopper said.

While the science of virology, and the pandemic itself, seem like something out of a science fiction novel, Stewart and Hopper urge individuals to listen to actual experts and not the science fiction of social media when it comes to making informed decisions about COVID-19.

And, though many people are worried about the safety of the vaccine because it was developed so quickly, Hopper said he hopes the fact that the research leading to this moment was started more than three decades ago for similar viruses helps alleviate some of those fears.

“In reality, the research that went into this,” he said, “has been around for a very long time.”

Public comment begins on proposed solar farm

Word, it seems, has spread regarding the possible construction of a solar farm in Harrison Township.

It’s been nearly a year since county elected officials first took up the drafting of a zoning ordinance specifically targeting solar development in Knox County. Companies were actively looking to lease land here, so the county commissioners and Area Plan Commission figured they should get out ahead of any proposals.

With solar energy being relatively new here in Indiana, few Hoosier counties have the necessary zoning laws to best protect both themselves and developers.

The commissioners and the APC, as well as a third-party law firm, have spent months drafting the ordinance, painstakingly going over every detail, from buffer zones to setbacks and even decommissioning bonds.

The zoning ordinance was finally approved by the APC and the commissioners this fall, and in the weeks prior, few, if any, details were not thoroughly considered or publicly discussed.

But it seems only now have the residents of Harrison Township taken notice.

The APC tonight will host a public hearing on the proposed development, a $110 million solar farm dubbed RATTS 2, being taken on by Tenaska, a Nebraska-based solar company, and Capital Dynamics, the company that will oversee construction and management. The solar duo has filed the necessary paperwork with the APC to secure a zoning change; it’s the first in several required steps before the they can be awarded the proper permits and, with them, the green light to begin construction.

Colt Michaels, the APC’s executive director, said he expects a large turnout for tonight’s meeting.

“Early on, we didn’t really have a lot of details about Tenaska’s project,” Michaels said Monday during a brief telephone conversation. “I think the residents of Harrison Township probably heard it would be down there somewhere, likely on some (coal mine reclamation land), but to now actually see how spread out and checker-boarded it is, from near Monroe City all the way to the river, it’s just different than what people expected.”

Tenaska has leased about 2,800 acres of land for the project. Actual construction, Michaels said, has been proposed for just 1,200 of that, an area perimetered by roads that include Lucky Point, South Petersburg, Burke and Governors, among others.

But it’s not one large area, as many expected, but rather multiple areas — some large, others small, and they’re not contiguous.

Michaels has fielded several calls and received multiple letters from residents both in favor of and with concerns about the project. And many plan on attending tonight to speak to the APC.

“There suddenly is a lot of talk,” Michaels said. “They’re concerned about property values, about their safety, even asking questions about electromagnetic fields and the health concerns that go along with that.

“These are people who have lived on a property for 30 years or more, maybe their entire existence, and what they see out in front of and behind them will completely change.”

That said, the APC is charged only with making sure Tenaska’s application meets all of the criteria set forth by the ordinance, not necessarily to hear grievances from upset residents.

They will, however, hear them and look for ways to mitigate them however possible, Michaels said.

“I think we want to hear a measure from the public of what their main concerns are, especially those who live right next door to the proposed footprint,” Michaels said. “We want to listen, but we have to look at our ordinance and see if the development standards can be met.

“If they can, then, ideally, this thing will pass.”

The county itself looks to benefit from the solar development.

The county council in October approved an Economic Development Agreement between the solar duo and the county. The commissioners soon followed.

The deal struck allows for a ten-year tax abatement — one that essentially forgives 100% of the personal and property taxes on any improvements made to the land.

In return, $2.5 million will be paid to the county in “economic development payments,” ones made by Tenaska and Capital Dynamics, the partnership taking on the solar project, over a six-year period.

The county, too, is expected to see additional tax benefits totaling some $16 million over the expected 35-year life of the solar farm.

And at least some elected officials have said they would like to see a portion of the money go toward improving roads in that area.

A handful of property owners — ones that will directly benefit from the leases with the solar duo — have also spoken in favor of the development, both during discussions of the EDA and of the ordinance itself.

Michaels said tonight is just the first step — albeit a big step — in Tenaska’s plan to move forward.

Following the public hearing, the APC will review the application and either approve or deny based on its merit.

It’s also possible, Michaels said, that they could “approve it conditionally.”

“There is a little bit of wiggle room,” he said. “There may be situations, issues, we didn’t think about.”

It’s also possible, he said, that APC members will table it until next month, giving themselves some time to mull it over.

If the APC does approve it, whether this month or next, there are several more hurdles that must be cleared before construction can begin.

Armed with the APC’s approval, the solar team would then need to seek approval from the county’s drainage board. The commissioners, per the ordinance, would then need to approve a decommissioning plan.

“And all that has to happen before they can give me a final, polished plan for review,” Michaels said.

The solar team has said they hope to secure final approvals from county officials early this year and begin construction soon thereafter.

They expect it to be fully operational by 2022.

Construction of the solar farm itself will provide about 188 full-time jobs for a fully year.

After that, the farm will require four full-time workers to oversee operations and maintenance for the expected 35-year project life.