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Graphic by Michael Johnson

JASPER COUNTY — The monthly round table Zoom meeting hosted by the Jasper County Economic Development Organization and the Jasper Newton Foundation focused on COVID in the county. Speakers were Commissioner Kendell Culp, Franciscan Health Rensselaer COO Carlos Vasquez and Dr. Stevan Vukovich, head of the ER at the hospital.

Culp gave the stats on the virus’ spread in the county, which on Friday had the county at 11.2% positivity rate with over 1,000 cases reported since the pandemic began and seven deaths. He said the Rensselaer Care Center had more than 25 postivie cases, but that the facility had done an “outstanding” job of keeping the disease out of the long term care facility until then.

Culp said the courthouse is open by appointment only and encouraged residents to call first before coming. There is a drop box for tax bills without having to go into the building as well.

With funding through the CARES Act, the county purchased 50 laptops in case employees have to be quarantined for those who are able to work from home. The laptops will eventually replace the employees’ desktop computers so the IT person isn’t overwhelmed with the extra equipment.

“Kudos to the school systems,” he said. “They’ve done an excellent job.”

He said county health nurse, Debra Nagel, told him the biggest spread within the county has come from church activities where large groups are meeting. He said there is a concern about spread after Thanksgiving. Testing sites in the county are the Rensselaer CVS and Franciscan Health Rensselaer (formerly Jasper County Hospital), although a doctor’s order is required for testing there.

A drive-thru testing site is scheduled to open this week at the Kankakee Township Community Center/Fire Station Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. No appointment is necessary and no doctor’s order is required. “We do the best we can to be responsive to the people,” he said.

Vasquez said they have seen a surge of positive patients at the hospital as well as an increase in the number of people tested for the virus. He said they went from an average of 40 tests a day to 160 and they’ve opened up more hours for the testing to be done. With an order from a physician, a person could call to set up a time to be tested in the afternoon. Normal testing hours are 9 to 11 a.m.

Vasquez said the test results usually take 64 yo 670 hours on average to return.

He said the hospital is doing well with PPE supplies and testing kits. He said he talked with management at George Ade Health Care Center in Brook, which has had 21 patients and some staff tested positive for COVID.

“There is a tremendous concern to take care of patients there,” he said. He said the hospital too has run into stafffing issues due to the coronavirus. “It’s not about occupancy,” he said, “It’s about staff.” Especially with schools closing and day care centers closing, they find themselves reaching out to other hospitals for help. Friday, the hospital had five patients in isolation and 16 patients.

With Jasper County one decimal point away from a red status, meaning high level of community spread, he said if it goes to red, they will have to go back to no visitors as they did back in March and April. “We truly don’t want to do that,” he said. As the county remains in orange, only one visitor per patient is allowed. He said the hospital is ready to help the care center once the Indiana State Department of Health gives them the OK.

However, he said, “We have to keep our staff healthy. We’re on very thin line on staffing.”

Head of the hospitals’ emergency room, Dr. Stevan Vukovich also attended the discussion. He said they are seeing an increase in cases. He said the frustration is the time it takes to get results back. Most people coming in with the virus, have mild to moderate symptoms. Most of Franciscan’s “sister” hospitals are at full capacity. He said they also have to deal with the normal day to day issues as well. “Our challenges are finding adequate transportation out of this area. We take care of people, we work through our challenges,” he said. He suggested people take advantage of the drive-thru testing site if their symptoms don’t require emergency care. “If you’re having a medical emergency, please come. We’re here for you,” he said.

The hospital is asking people who have already had COVID to donate plasma. Vukovich said the “convalescent plasma” would be a great help and they are able to give the plasma to active COVID patients. He said their first reverse plasma patient was able to walk out of the hospital the next day after the treatment.

He also said the supply of blood across the country is very critical and said the hospital is planning a blood drive soon.