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City Hall closes, elementary class quarantined as COVID-19 cases continue to rise

A case of COVID-19 inside City Hall has prompted Mayor Joe Yochum to close the building to the public until Oct. 26.

Wednesday, a single confirmed case of the virus was linked to the city inspector’s office, prompting the mayor to quickly close the facility.

Though most COVID-related closures last only two weeks, Yochum said he and Knox County Health Officer Dr. Alan Stewart decided it was in the best interest of city employees and the public to leave the doors closed a little longer.

“We decided we’d rather be safe than sorry,” Yochum said.

A key factor, explained Stewart, is allowing enough time to ensure other city officials and employees aren’t COVID-positive.

“The mayor and I want to make sure employees are safe and COVID-free, and we want to be sure the public is safe” he said.

With a number of offices inside of City Hall — from the mayor to clerk-treasurer to city inspector and the parks department — Stewart said adequate social distancing measures would have been difficult to achieve.

Too, he said, it seems unlikely that all employees would have been masked at all times throughout the day, so a number of city workers may have been exposed to the virus early this week.

Fortunately, much of the work of staff members can be conducted remotely, so the city’s business should continue and staff will be paid during the office closure.

Yochum said phones and voicemail messages will be closely monitored, so residents are urged to simply call the appropriate office to handle any immediate concerns.

City council president Tim Salters also confirmed that the upcoming Oct. 13 council meeting will be held remotely via Zoom. More information about public access to the meeting is forthcoming.

And right on the heels of the mayor’s closure of City Hall came word that an entire first grade class at Tecumseh-Harrison Elementary School is being quarantined after a staff member tested positive for the coronavirus on Tuesday.

Tim Salters, director of communications for the Vincennes Community School Corp., said because such young students are not required to mask, VCSC administrators believed it best to send the whole classroom of students home for the quarantine period.

And Dr. Stewart agrees, saying he applauds VCSC for making the decision to take serious action to prevent further spread.

“I feel very strongly that this is the way to handle the situation,” he said. “Past experience has shown that the more extensive mitigation and prevention methods have been extremely successful.

“We’ve been burned a couple of times when we tried to take shortcuts,” Stewart added.

Though Knox County saw a few days with only a handful of new cases, Stewart said by Tuesday the county was once again seeing about ten new positive cases per day, and he’s concerned about surges in nearby counties, too.

“Southwest Indiana has been seeing a surge, and Evansville is seeing a huge stress on their hospitals,” Stewart noted of the nearby city.

Despite ten deaths in Knox County so far and nearly 550 confirmed cases of the virus, Stewart said a number of people still aren’t taking the pandemic seriously, likely resulting in continued community spread.

In regards to masking — currently the best known way to reduce spread of the novel coronavirus — the health officer says he often sees more people without masks than with them when inside area businesses.

“I see a lot of older people who are more susceptible to complications from the virus without masks — and people with their children,” he said. “They should know better, and be setting a better example.”

Indiana has seen more than 120,000 cases of the virus since March, and nearly 3,500 COVID-related deaths.

'In a spirit of celebration'

Officials with the Knox County Drug Court program in late August were dealt a devastating blow upon the untimely death of their benefactor, Superior Court II Judge Ryan Johanningsmeier.

September, program coordinator Joe Williams told a large group of graduates and their families gathered at Gregg Park Wednesday afternoon, was a time for mourning.

“But we’re going to end it on a note of happiness and celebration,” Williams announced during the graduation ceremony, the first since Johanningsmeier’s death on Aug. 29. “Because we want to ensure October begins in a spirit of celebration of recovery and the hope of more to come.

“Today we celebrate these graduates and the impact we know they will have on our community.”

While there was an inevitable sadness felt during the ceremony, Williams said they tried hard to make it about the graduates themselves, not Johanningsmeier’s painful absence.

That’s what Johanningsmeier, who was often his Drug Court participants’ biggest champion, would have wanted anyway.

“Today is for the graduates,” Williams said matter-of-factly. “We had a moment of silence for Judge Johanningsmeier, and certainly that was appropriate. Really, we could have spent all day remembering him and the impact he left, but that would have diminished the recognition of the participants.

“And he wouldn’t have wanted that.”

New Superior Court II Judge Brian Johnson, a local attorney who was appointed by Gov. Eric Holcomb to finish Johanningsmeier’s current term, recognized his “passion, drive and tireless work ethic.”

“We owe him so much,” Johnson told the crowd. “And his legacy will live on through Drug Court.”

And Johanningsmeier would want, he said, the graduates to be recognized “for all their hard work” over the last two years.

Collectively, the 14 graduates celebrated more than 4,000 days of sobriety, and 29 children now have active and engaged parents.

Together, their cumulative sentences with the Indiana Department of Corrections would have been 52 years, thereby costing taxpayers as much as $936,000.

Graduate Kevin Staley was the first to seize his diploma Wednesday, and he “thanked God for putting Ryan” in his life.

Before entering the program, he said he was in a “vicious cycle” of addiction and had been incarcerated 30 times.

But upon his arrest in April of 2018, he prayed for another opportunity to get it right.

“I asked God to give me one more chance,” he said. “And he did just that.”

Staley said he, like so many others, was worried about handling the responsibilities of Drug Court with jobs and daily life, but Johanningsmeier — and the network of supporters he put in place — made it all feel possible.

“I am two years, five months and five days clean and sober,” he announced proudly, to which the shelter house erupted in whoops and applause.

He vowed to embrace life with “integrity” and “to do the next right thing even when no one is watching.”

And for that, he knew Johanningsmeier would be proud.

“I know he’s up there right now looking down on us with that big smile,” he said.

Staley’s fellow Drug Court graduate, Jesse Cummings, donned a tie just for Johanningsmsier.

“If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be up here wearing a tie right now,” he said, to which the crowd laughed. “He did a lot for me. He gave me a chance when no one else would.”

Case managers Ann Bobbitt and McKenna Dillon were on hand to celebrate alongside their graduates.

Bobbitt said whenever Jeremy Thorne, another Drug Court graduate, first came into the program he was jobless, homeless and “maybe weighed 100 pounds soaking wet.”

“And now look at you!” she exclaimed, to which Thorne beamed.

Looking healthy and happy, Thorne said he used to live in the very shelter house where they were gathered on Wednesday.

“And I probably did weigh 100 pounds because I only ate once a week,” he said.

But now he’s mended relationships, found a job, has completed a sober living program and entered yet another.

“You’ve shown tremendous growth,” Bobbitt told him proudly.

Drug Court, Thorne said, “gave me my life back.”

Williams said watching these participants find success over the last few years has been a joy.

“We’re the luckiest people to be able to work with them and see what they do with this opportunity,” Williams said, adding that sometimes all it takes is showing someone the right path and helping them to say on it long enough to adapt.

“It’s not the easy path, but it is the right path,” Williams said, “and these people have chosen it.”

Health board to re-direct money from fines and fees

The Knox County Health Board has established a non-reverting fund to capture fines and fees paid by local restaurants and businesses found to be in non-compliance of state regulations.

The plan: to have a designated pot of money from which to draw for the health department’s most basic, daily needs.

County sanitarian Madeline Hatcher said the health department collects sometimes up to $35,000 per year from the fines paid by restaurants for state health code violations as well as fees from those seeking food service permits.

Typically, that money goes back into the heath department’s General Fund, but given growing concerns surrounding COVID-19, board members thought it best to begin designating a portion of money each year for the most basic of expenses.

After being approved by the county council during budget hearings last month, the non-reverting fund will now collect those dollars, and health department officials can use it, as necessary, to purchase everything from Personal Protective Equipment to even print materials, such as flyers and pamphlets.

The money, too, could go to upgrade equipment or technology.

It’s also possible — although not likely — that money from the non-reverting fund could go to pay staff, although health board members agreed it wouldn’t be best practice to connect payroll to collected fees so as not to arouse concerns from local businesses worried sanitarians are looking for violations in an effort to pay staff.

It could, however, be used in the event of an emergency, and health officials do happen to find themselves in something of an emergency right now.

County heath officer Dr. Alan Stewart said he failed to secure a state grant that pays for a part-time nurse at the immunization clinic.

The health board on Wednesday approved the expenditure of some remaining federal CARES Act funds to pay for that position through the end of the year, then money from this non-reverting fund could pay that nurse’s salary through June of 2021, at which time Stewart can again secure the necessary grant funds.

That position is vital, Stewart said, to his goal of eventually expanding the immunization clinic’s hours in an effort to service more children.

The county’s immunization rate amongst children recently dropped, health board members learned Wednesday, from 65% down to 59%, a number many of them were astounded by.

Pre-COVID-19, they’d begun conversations with county school corporations in an effort to host on-site immunization clinics. They hope to pick those discussions back up — at some point — but that additional nurse would play a huge role in getting that done, Stewart said.

The health board also on Wednesday opted not to replace a full-time position in the vital records department; there were previously two.

Per Stewart’s recommendation, vital records can make do with one full-time employee. The greater need, he said, is the addition of a full-time sanitarian as they look to take on more and more restaurant and business inspections.

So a current part-time sanitarian will be moved up to full-time, board members decided, thereby allowing Hatcher, who fills a variety of roles at the health department, including as a full-time sanitarian herself, can focus on more fiscal-related responsibilities.

If additional monies become available — and if the need is found to be there — the health board could always revisit that vital records position later.