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KDH nears full capacity as COVID cases surge
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King’s Daughters’ Health is operating at near full capacity as local COVID-19 cases continue to climb for the second month in a row, Public Information Specialist Dave Ommen said on Monday.

KDH is far from the only hospital in Indiana grappling with recent surges in the virus. According to Indiana State Department of Health data, hospitalizations from coronavirus hit an all-time high on Dec. 1 with 3,441 patients counted — nearly twice the amount recorded on Nov. 1.

Only about 22% of intensive care unit (ICU) beds around the state were available, with COVID patients taking up 43.6% of all beds at the most recent update Monday. Ventilators, meanwhile, are still widely available with about 70% remaining.

Locally, ICU beds are even more scare. Only about 13.5% of ICU beds remained unoccupied Monday in District 9, the ISDH region designated for 12 southeastern Indiana counties, including Jefferson.

According to US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) data updated on Sunday, 29 Hoosier hospitals were also reporting critical staffing shortages while 39 expected a shortage within a week.

Ommen said Monday that KDH’s ICU has been running at full capacity “for some time,” but that includes both COVID and non-COVID patients. Other medical units at the hospital have consistently operated at near capacity in recent weeks, but Ommen did not have specific numbers available.

The hospital’s COVID hotline has also stayed busy, fielding an average of 35-80 calls per day, he said. KDH is still seeing a high number of patients visit the isolation clinic and has plans in place in case the need outweighs what the hospital can provide.

The hospital hasn’t had to make any notable staffing changes, but plans are in place for changes in staffing and creating extra beds at the hospital if needed due to an additional surge, Ommen said.

“We are prepared for a variety of scenarios to handle unexpected surges in patients — whether that be from COVID or from something else like a natural disaster,” Ommen said.

Speaking at the city’s Board of Public Works and Safety meeting Monday morning, Madison Mayor Bob Courtney said Madison’s “Back to Blue” campaign continues to add businesses who have pledged to support safe activities — particularly during the holiday shopping season — as Jefferson County works to push its COVID-19 infection-rate to safer levels.

The state quantifies each county’s infection rate based on a color chart — with correlating restrictions increasing as the numbers rise — and Jefferson County is currently in the orange zone but moving toward the yellow with a goal of being back in the blue.

The county’s overall rate of infection increased to about 14.5% recently, less than a percentage point from the red zone that triggers the most restrictive orders and guidelines, Courtney said. Going into last weekend the county was bathe virus.

He added that over the last month the county has seen significantly more cases and more deaths, so it is important for citizens to follow the guidelines that can reverse that trend by wearing masks, social distancing, washing hands and getting tested if they experience symptoms or think they’ve come into contact with an infected person.

If the county can remain under 10% for two consecutive weeks, Jefferson County can drop back into the yellow zone. A drop below 5% would once again put the county in the blue zone, where Jefferson County stayed from March through October.

Courtney said based on data he’s seen, hospitalizations are up at the local hospital but the facility still has capacity to treat more patients and still has ventilators that can be used on the worst cases.

He noted that the number of patients visiting the hospital’s urgent care clinic — one of the local sites for COVID-19 testing — is up as well.

“I just want to say how grateful I am for our frontline health care workers and the job they are doing to help us deal with this pandemic,” the mayor noted.

On Monday the City of Madison Parks Department announced it is canceling boys youth basketball this season, citing low registration numbers. Girls youth basketball will open registration in early 2021, the department said.

Meanwhile at Prince of Peace Catholic Schools, students are going back to virtual learning following a brief return to the physical classroom. The private Catholic district announced on Monday that the virtual learning period will last through Dec. 11 at the earliest but added it reevaluate a return date by mid-week.

A lot of that decision came down to half of all Shawe Memorial Jr./Sr. High School students opting for virtual learning after Thanksgiving Break a couple weeks ago, school principal Curt Gardner said.

Instead of asking teachers to manage both virtual and in-person students at the same time, administrators thought it might be better to move everyone online for at least the next week — especially since cases will most likely climb after recent social gatherings.

“And honestly we’re probably at the front of the iceberg with these cases coming in this weekend … so with that in mind and knowing that could only be the front end and we could be dealing with a lot more contact tracing in the next couple days if we kept going, we just thought it was the responsible thing to do,” Gardner said.

Gardner said the district was close to moving to virtual a couple weeks ago due to substitute teacher shortages, with 20-25% of its staff out quarantining. Only one staff member was in quarantine as of Monday morning due to being a close contact, Gardner said.

Unlike the school’s most recent virtual learning stint last month, teachers are now allowed to teach live from home rather than from their classrooms, Gardner said, giving them the chance to socially distance if they want to spend the holidays with elderly or immune-compromised relatives. He said most teachers are still coming in, however.

Overall, Gardner has been pleased with the partnership between teachers, students and families in making this semester work so far.

“Parents have been supportive, students have been doing their work, teachers have been on the ball,” Gardner said.

He said administrators were still unsure if they would return to the physical classroom next week.

Madison Consolidated High School and Junior High Schools, meanwhile, returned to face-to-face classes Monday following a nearly month-long virtual learning shutdown due to staff shortages.

Across the river, in-person classes at Trimble County Public Schools were pushed back to at least Dec. 14 due to the county having an incidence rate of 35.4 and staying red on the Kentucky Department for Public Health dashboard. The district hoped to return to classrooms on Monday after three weeks of online learning under Gov. Andy Beshear’s directive, but the county incidence rate would need to be at 25 or below for in-person classes to resume under the governor’s directives.

In a statement on Dec. 3, the school district said it would reevaluate its incidence rate and see if a Dec. 14 return was possible.

City allows Farmers Market winter access
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Madison’s Board of Public Works and Safety approved a request by organizers of the local farmer’s market allowing them to remain outside throughout the winter where social distancing and ventilation makes for presumably safer conditions for vendors and customers.

Jenny Mills, speaking on behalf of the Saturday morning market, said the group has approval to move inside nearby Trinity United Methodist Church for the winter, but given the concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic would prefer to remain outside where there is ample room to spread out and reduce contact through social distancing.

To do that the market needs city approval for a street closure on the south side of Broadway Street from Main to Third streets from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Saturdays from Dec. 12 through March 13 when the spring and summer seasons begin.

She said the market normally has nine or 10 vendors over the winter months and an occasional food truck and being outdoors is a better option for the vendors and will allow the food truck to continue parking for the event. She said on Saturday’s when weather condition prohibit outdoor operation, the group could move indoors at the church.

The board unanimously approved the request but asked that the vendors set up in the street portion of the area rather than on the sidewalks or turf areas in the Broadway Fountain park, which has been decorated for the holidays with lights.

In other business, board members approved several midpoint payments on projects awarded grants through the city’s PACE program to preserve and beautify the historic district.

A project at 305 East Fourth Street received a $3,875 midpoint payment while another at 409 East Third Street received $10,085.50 after reaching 50% completion. Two side-by-side rehabilitation projects at 505 and 507 Walnut Street received $12,500 each.

In other PACE program applications, the Board granted a six-month extension to a project at 518 Jefferson Street that has been delayed by weather and approved a correction to the Board’s minutes last month to change an application that had been listed as 520 East Main Street to 220 East Main Street.

Meanwhile, Mayor Bob Courtney updated the Board on a proposal to buy a tract of land along the Ohio River on Vaughn Drive from the Madison Coal Company. The mayor said negotiations are ongoing but asked that the issued be tabled on Monday.

Courtney also notified the board that Madison Police Chief John Wallace is currently compiling recent feedback on the city’s review and update of the police department’s manual of Standard Operating Procedures and the finished document should come before Public Works for approval at its next meeting on Dec. 21.

Wallace said he was meeting with City Council member Katie Rampy at 11 a.m. today at the intersection of Highland Drive and Ross Street and Hargan Drive and Ross Street to investigate speeding complaints in that area, talk to interested neighbors and determine the best way to alleviate the problem. Wallace invited anyone interested in the discussion to attend that site visit.

Photos of a PACE grant property at 409 East Third Street are displayed during a Madison Board of Public Works and Safety Zoom meeting Monday when several mid-term payouts for local restoration and beautification projects were considered. The Board approved payouts to all applications including $10,085.50 to the property shown.

Outlook bleak for millions facing cutoff of US jobless aid
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INDIANAPOLIS — Tina Morton recently faced a choice: Pay bills — or buy a birthday gift for a child? Derrisa Green is falling further behind on rent. Sylvia Soliz has had her electricity cut off.

Unemployment has forced aching decisions on millions of Americans and their families in the face of a rampaging viral pandemic that has closed shops and restaurants, paralyzed travel and left millions jobless for months. Now, their predicaments stand to grow bleaker yet if Congress fails to extend two unemployment programs that are set to expire the day after Christmas.

If no agreement is reached in negotiations taking place on Capitol Hill, more than 9 million people will lose federal jobless aid that averages about $320 a week and that typically serves as their only source of income.

Green, 39, and her husband are among them. An end to their unemployment benefits would force them to keep missing rent payments on their home in Dyer, Indiana, near Chicago. The couple have eight children. Green’s husband is a self-employed truck driver whose business disappeared when the pandemic erupted in the spring. Only in October did he start to pick up occasional work.

He now receives about $235 a week in unemployment aid. Even so, “all of our bills are late,” Green said. They’ve received several shutoff notices from utilities before managing to pay just before service was to be cut off.

“That’s really scary,” Green said, “because what are we going to do when we lose the unemployment money?”

The end of jobless aid is approaching at an especially perilous time. Job growth slowed sharply in November, and the resurgence of viral cases appears to be out of control across the country.

Even with the prospect of an effective vaccine being widely distributed in coming months, economists say the picture will worsen before it improves. Many foresee a net loss of jobs in December for the first time since April.

On Friday, President-elect Joe Biden called on Congress to quickly approve a bipartisan $908 billion package that would establish a $300-a-week jobless benefit as well as send aid to states and localities, help schools and universities, revive subsidies for businesses and support transit systems and airlines. Details are still being worked out, but the outlines of a final bill could emerge soon.

More than 20 million people are now receiving unemployment benefits. More than half are beneficiaries of two programs that were part of rescue aid legislation Congress enacted in March. One program made self-employed and contract workers eligible for jobless aid for the first time and provided 39 weeks of support. The other program supplied 13 weeks of extended benefits to the 26 weeks that most states provide.

About 9.1 million who are receiving aid from those programs will be cut off Dec. 26, according to a report from the Century Foundation. An additional 4.4 million are expected to exhaust all 39 weeks by year’s end. If Congress agrees to provide more weeks of aid and to revive both programs, those beneficiaries could keep receiving aid next year.

That would be a life-saver for Sylvia Soliz who lives in Corpus Christi, Texas. Soliz, 36, who still owes part of her rent for November and December, has received an eviction notice. She’s also just had her electricity cut off.

Back in March, Soliz was laid off from her job as a nurse’s assistant at a senior living facility. She’s now receiving $414 in jobless aid every two weeks. With four children, it doesn’t go very far.

“The day I get it, it’s already gone because my kids need so many things,” Soliz said. “Of course, I have to pay a portion to whatever bill I have, so that way I can stretch it out. But every time another check comes in, it’s another bill.”

Soliz is applying for a new job, and she checks in with her old employer. So far, no luck. She also worries about contracting COVID-19. Soliz is hopeful that Congress will agree to provide more aid, but she feels “they are basically gambling with us.”

A cutoff of jobless benefits now, with so many millions of Americans still receiving the aid, would be unusually early compared with previous recessions. In the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008-2009, the government extended unemployment benefits to 99 weeks, and the additional aid lasted through 2013. When that program ended, about 1.3 million people lost benefits — a small fraction of the number who would lose jobless aid this time.

Other government protections will also expire at the end of this year, including a federal moratorium on evictions for renters. A suspension of payments on federal student loans will expire at the end of January.

“I am very afraid of people facing homelessness — that’s our top concern,” said Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. “It’s a terrible unforced policy error to make. It will slow the recovery that we’re having by cutting off these benefits so early.”

About one in six renters in the United States are behind on their rent, according to a survey from the Census Bureau. And 12% of adults say their families didn’t have enough to eat at some point in the past week, the survey found. That’s up from just 3.7% in 2019, according to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

A wrenching set of choices has confronted Keli Paaske, who lives in the Kansas City area. Since being furloughed in the spring from her sales job at a company that makes fire doors, Paaske, 56, has cut back her grocery budget. She thought she’d be called back once the virus waned. But when her boss phoned in August, it was with a different message: Her job had been eliminated.

Paaske had hesitated to spend $360 needed to euthanize her 15-year old dog, who had a brain tumor, before going through with it. Without unemployment aid, Paaske isn’t sure how she would manage. She may seek financial help from her parents, who are in their 80s, something she has resisted doing. If she doesn’t find a job by March, she said, she’ll stop leasing her car.

Across the country, a cutoff of jobless aid would disproportionately affect Black Americans, according to data from the Century Foundation. About 18% of unemployment aid recipients are Black, the Foundation said, though Black Americans make up just 12% of the workforce. More than 57% of recipients are white. Nearly 13% are Latino. (There is no demographic data on about one-fifth of recipients.)

Tina Morton used to clean houses near where she lives in Winchester, Kentucky. But there’s been little work since the pandemic struck. Like many other single mothers, she has struggled with the need to find another job while simultaneously caring for children — a son and two nephews she has custody of — who are attending school online at home.

“Single parents cannot go out here and ... just find any job,” said Morton, 39. “We’ve got our kids here that are stuck at home.”

Last week, Morton had to choose between paying a phone bill and buying one of her nephews a birthday present. (She got him a present). If her jobless aid ends, she expects to face painful decisions.

She’s particularly worried about her two nephews.

“That’s what hurts me the most,” she said. “My job is to give them more — give them better than where they came from.”