Southwestern Indiana is now ground zero in the state's fight to fend off COVID-19.
It's been seven months since the novel coronavirus first entered our Hoosier communities, and while the majority of the state has managed to minimize case counts this fall, six of the state's southwestern counties are currently at an 'Orange' warning level, with Pike County being the only county in the state currently categorized as 'Red.'
Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb joined 44News Anchor Jessica Hartman for an exclusive interview where they discussed the substantial increase of new positive COVID-19 cases and deaths in southwestern Indiana and how those numbers play into the state's entry into Stage 5 of reopening - the final stage of the governor's "Back on Track" plan.
The Stage 5 guidelines that currently lead the Hoosier State through the pandemic are set to be readdressed by Gov. Holcomb on Oct. 17th. With several holidays are quickly approaching and COVID-19 cases surging in southwestern Indiana, it begs the question as to whether or not it's responsible for District 10 to continue operations at this level.
Should Indiana move back to Stage 4.5?
"We're in Stage 5, and you know, you could call it the final stage - it's not really, it's Stage 5," said Gov. Holcomb. "To be in a final stage, you would be in no stage whatsoever. The stage that we're in obviously has capacity restrictions, has approval steps that you need to get from your local health department."
Stage 5's guidelines originally called on organizers of events where 500 attendees or more would be present to submit a written plan to their local health department, which would then require the health department's approval.
Following State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box's meeting with Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke on Thursday, Mayor Winnecke issued a local order on that requirement, making it increasingly strict.
"What we have learned is, when you let your guard down, when you are not vigilant, when you just assume you won't get it - that's where we get bit," Gov. Holcomb explained. "Masks work. They slow the spread. Not wearing masks, not physically distancing, not washing your hands... going into compact crowds - that costs not only at the extreme lives, but it also costs livelihoods."
However, instead of tightening statewide restrictions in response to the cluster of southern counties experience high case numbers, the state is taking a targeted aproach.
"On the ground meeting with local leaders and requesting. 'what it is that they need.' In addition to making sure they understand that we continue to partner with them on these types of restrictions," detailed Gov. Holcomb.
Gov. Holcomb address state's economic recovery:
Indiana's unemployment rate has bounced back from its highpoint in April, when over 17% of the state's workforce was sidelined - but it's still double the rate that it was at the start of 2020.
Gov. Holcomb says there are a number of different things to help the state recover, some specifically in southern Indiana.
"It's not just us but we are - and it's our federal partners and our local partners there on the ground, all working together in partnership," said Gov. Holcomb. "If there's a silver lining in all of this, it's everyone has come together to say 'how can we help and maximize, leverage that synergy - harness it and then leverage it.'"
"We had $9 billion come into the state of Indiana - over 80,000 loans being forgiven," Holcomb continued. "We have CARES Act dollars going into each of our sectors that are in need and struggling, but there needs to be more."
Gov. Holcomb said it's essential that Indiana's supply chains are open, and that its businesses are operating safely. "We have to make sure that everyone has that opportunity - and the State of Indiana has workforce development programs that are working to the tune of tens-of-thousands of Hoosiers who are getting certificates that the state will pay for, and credentials, to go into these jobs," he said.
The governor pointed to Indiana Career Connect, which he says currently lists more than 100,000 open positions in the state.
Gov. Holcomb says the poll are prepared for safe voting:
Indiana is one of a few states not allowing its residents to cite COVID-19 as the specific reason to vote absentee, but there is a myriad of other reasons voters can use to apply for absentee voting by October 22nd.
Early voting started October 6th in Indiana and brought long-lines at the Old National Events Plaza in Vanderburgh County.
"We proved coming out of our sheltering in place or our 'hunkering down' during a primary, that elections are safe to vote in-person," Holcomb said. "The PPE is on the ground, the Secretary of State Connie Lawson has provided the polling sites with all that personal protective equipment and gear."
"It's safe to vote in-person, whether it's on election day or the 28 days prior," Holcomb added.