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Gov. Eric Holcomb talks about a variety of topics at the Cone Palace on Oct. 30, 2020. Tim Bath | Kokomo Tribune

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb said Friday that ordering a statewide shutdown would be a last resort to curb the spread of COVID-19, and instead will focus on responding to local outbreaks and working with counties to clamp down on new cases of the virus.

Holcomb was in Kokomo on Friday for an interview with The Tribune at Cone Palace.

Holcomb’s comment came as newly reported cases of the virus hit a daily high on Thursday, and the number of Hoosiers currently hospitalized with coronavirus reached numbers not seen since early April.

He said the state is keeping track of the amount of personal-protective equipment (PPE), available hospital beds and testing numbers in each county, and using that to determine how to respond to communities that are seeing a surge in new cases of the virus.

“We look at it very locally and by county, and go out of our way to take every step we can, locally, to make sure they don’t get to the red, and if they do, not to stay there,” he said. “That approach is allowing us to manage our way through this.”

Holcomb said focusing on local cases is possible now that the state has built up reserves and stockpiles of PPE equipment, and created a communication network to allow for quick responses if there is an outbreak.

“We can hone in, and the emphasis now is personal responsibility and personal actions, and how they affect, adversely or positively, the common good,” he said. “ … If we get to the point where there are no beds or staff and no PPE to meet the need, then we’re going to have to do something different.”

U.S. 31 J-TURNS

Holcomb said the Indiana Department of Transportation is once again reassessing whether to install J-turn intersections on U.S. 31 in Miami County after the proposal received fierce pushback from local officials.

In July, Miami County sent Holcomb a joint resolution with more than a dozen agencies opposing the construction of the intersections, which the state now calls median U-turns.

INDOT confirmed in February it will install the intersections at 850 South, Indiana 218 South junction that goes into Bunker Hill; Indiana 218 North junction that runs by Grissom Air Reserve Base; 100 North and Indiana 16. Since then, the state has also pegged 800 South for a median U-turn.

Holcomb said in response to the pushback, his chief of staff and INDOT Commissioner Joe McGuinness came to the area and met with farmers, educational leaders, military personnel, business owners and others to get their input on J-turns.

“As you might expect, there are different opinions among all the stakeholders,” he said.

Now, INDOT is once again in discussions about whether to install J-turns, Holcomb said, and the state may end up not building them at all the intersections which had previously been pegged for J-turns.

“INDOT and local leaders on this route, we’ve agreed to think about this, come back, and share new ideas on our shared goal, which is increasing not just mobility, but safety,” he said. “… How can we get everyone in agreement? J-turns might not be part of that, ultimately.”

Holcomb said INDOT is also open to finding creative ways to build a full interchange in Tipton County at Division Road and U.S. 31 after the project was pulled due to a funding issue.

Tipton County officials have said they are willing to give up an overpass in its fight to get the interchange, which had originally been budgeted by the state for construction before the project was pulled off the table.

Holcomb said INDOT has worked with other counties in the past to come up with creative solutions to complete road projects, and the same holds in Tipton County.

“This would not be the first time INDOT has been receptive to and followed up on creative approaches to expediting a project,” he said. “It has been done, and it can be done in the future.”

TEACHER PAY

Holcomb said he wants Indiana to be among the top three states in the region for teacher salaries, but how exactly that might happen is up for debate.

He said he hopes to get ideas from a report completed by the Next Level Teacher Compensation Commission that has recommendations on teacher salaries, but the release of that report has been pushed back until after the Nov. 3 election due to the pandemic.

Initially, a 60-page draft report was expected this summer so lawmakers could review it while devising a new two-year state budget in January.

Holcomb said he hopes the report “gives us not just the facts, but recommendations on how we could be diverting funding and/or finding funding to go into this bucket (for teachers’ salaries).”

He said money made available by the state in 2019 for local school districts allowed 299 school corporations to increase teacher pay. He said the average teacher salary in Indiana has climbed from around $52,000 to $54,000 in part because of state funding.

But, Holcomb said, he wants to go further to make Indiana competitive in attracting teachers from outside the state.

“It was a step in the right direction, but we said we’re not there yet,” he said. “We’ve got more to do.”

Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, carson.gerber@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @carsongerber1.

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Carson Gerber is a reporter for the Kokomo Tribune and can be reached at 765-854-6739, carson.gerber@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @carsongerber1.

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