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Kankakee County officials share COVID-19 trends, urge public to follow safety guidance

KANKAKEE — Kankakee County has not recorded a coronavirus-related death in almost a month.

It’s one of the positive pandemic trends local health officials noted at a joint press conference Wednesday in the Sheriff Timothy F. Bukowski Public Safety Center in Kankakee.

John Bevis, Kankakee County Health Department administrator, said the last recorded coronavirus-related death in the county was June 26.

“That is something that is trending, we feel, in a positive light,” he said.

Together, state and local officials and health leaders stressed during the press conference the importance of continuing to follow safety guidelines, including face masks and social distancing to curb the virus’ spread.

Officials also expressed relief that Kankakee County is now grouped with the south suburban region with Will County instead of the Chicago Metropolitan region in Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s Restore Illinois plan.

As of Wednesday, Kankakee County has recorded 1,628 COVID-19 cases, 63 deaths and 1,133 recoveries. The county currently has 432 active cases of the virus, including 10 hospitalized patients, Bevis said.

“We continue to ask everybody to be very diligent in wearing the masks, washing the hands, watching your distance and staying safe,” he said.

Bevis said that as of Tuesday, the Illinois Department of Public Health approved $2.8 million in grant funding for the COVID-19 contact-tracing program in Kankakee County.

This will allow the county to hire more people to trace those who may have been infected through exposure to an individual who has tested positive for the virus. Tracers work with hospitals and testing agencies and help to identify and aid vulnerable populations.

“This is much needed money that comes at a perfect time for us,” Bevis said.

Phil Kambic, Riverside Healthcare president and CEO, further stressed the importance of following safety guidelines.

“How do you protect yourself, your loved ones and others? Wear a mask in public, guys,” Kambic said. “I’m not a politician. Maybe it’s an infringement on your personal human rights. I don’t really care. I wear a mask in public because I don’t want to infect you. Wear a mask in public so you don’t infect me, please.”

Kambic added that when a vaccine is developed, it likely will not be widely available at first. He said governments would probably prioritize access to the vaccine to vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and those with chronic conditions.

“I tell people this and they cringe. Here’s a reality: COVID is not going away,” he said. “COVID is going to be with us for the next 12, 18, 24 months. Let’s hope and pray there is a vaccine.”

Kambic also recommended not ignoring routine medical care, including getting a flu shot.

“The healthier you are, the less likely you are to get COVID-19,” he said. “Keep yourself as healthy as you can as we go into the winter months here.”

Since April 21, when Riverside acquired COVID-19 testing equipment, the hospital has conducted 21,854 tests, Kambic said. About 6.88 percent of those tests were positive, totaling 1,503 positive tests.

“What I look at are trends, and that continues to trend downward,” Kambic said.

The hospital’s trend in the past week was 3 percent. The positivity rate peaked in mid-April and continues to decline, he said.

From March until Monday, Riverside had about 150 COVID-19 patient admissions. The highest daily count was in the mid-20s, and currently the average is four patients, Kambic said.

There has been an uptick in people wanting to get tested, he added. The hospital sees about 200 patients per day at its main campus for drive-thru testing.

AMITA Health St. Mary’s Hospital in Kankakee has treated more than 275 patients for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic and is currently seeing a 4.3 percent positivity rate in testing, Chief Medical Officer Kalisha Hill said.

The hospital also has discharged over 70 patients who recovered from the virus, and is currently providing between 60 to 80 drive-thru tests per day.

Hill encouraged people to follow through on routine healthcare as well and stressed that hospitals and doctors’ offices are safe.

“This is not the time to sit at home when you know you are feeling ill,” she said.

State Sen. Patrick Joyce, D-Essex, said he was relieved that Kankakee County won’t be lumped in with Chicago as the state moves through its reopening phases, but he also believes everyone should stay vigilant in their efforts to curb the spread of the virus.

“As we reopen, make sure you wear your masks, wash your hands, do the things that all the local officials are begging and pleading so we stay in the fourth stage and we’ll move forward,” Joyce said.

Kankakee County Board Chair Andy Wheeler cited the efforts of the Healthy Business Alliance of Kankakee County, a group of about 50 community leaders, in providing the state with up-to-date numbers on local COVID-19 transmission. He said these efforts along with letters from local representatives were critical in getting Kankakee County moved to a different reopening region.

“Rather than fist pounding and reckless reopening policy and rhetoric, we chose the path of reason and respect,” Wheeler said. “I think that passion was backed up by data, and it appears this path is something we should revisit for other difficult issues.”

Could pandemic claim 25% of businesses?

KANKAKEE — Could one quarter of all Illinois businesses be wiped out due to the COVID-19 pandemic?

There are at least a few business experts who believe that could ultimately be the case.

During a Wednesday virtual meeting hosted by State Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, Clark Kaericher said up to 25 percent of state businesses will not likely survive.

Kaericher, vice president of government affairs for the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, noted the pandemic’s impact on small business is even harsher.

“Sadly, many businesses that are closing their doors due to the pandemic will never reopen,” Kaericher said. “... Not only has [COVID-19] been a daunting public health crisis, but Americans have simultaneously faced an economic catastrophe. Unfortunately, this one-two punch has been too much for many of our businesses to overcome.”

Ken Barragree, director of the Iroquois Economic Development Association, agreed on the potential devastation on small business.

These small businesses, he noted, are simply running out of the cash reserves they may have had on hand due to the 4-month-old pandemic.

“If they can open just some,” he said. “[But] another [governor-mandated] shutdown will be the end of them.”

Barragree said potentially half of small businesses will not be able to reopen. “I know that’s what you may not want to hear. They are struggling.”

Amanda Hibbs, executive director of the Watseka Area Chamber of Commerce, did not have any concrete data as of yet regarding businesses openings, but she believes the characterizations shared by Barragree and Kaericher are accurate.

“Lots of small businesses are struggling,” Hibbs said. “I can confidently say 25 percent will struggle to get through this. They simply will not have the money to pay their bills.”

Hibbs said she is fearful of what the ultimate may be on business ownership if this pandemic extend to year’s end.

“I would say there is a real good possibility of many businesses struggling to bounce back if this is continued,” she said.

Tim Nugent, president and CEO of the Economic Alliance of Kankakee County, who was not part of the Zoom meeting, agreed with the loss assessments.

In fact, Nugent said, the loss of businesses could be greater than 25 percent.

“Businesses cannot operate like this and be sustainable,” he said. Nugent noted many businesses — particularly small business — operate on a very small profit margin. Therefore, he said, they cannot exist long on 25 or 50 percent business capacity.

“There will be a lot of pain from this down the road,” he said.

Barickman said he is getting the feeling Gov. J.B. Pritzker is heading in the direction of restricting access as COVID-19 numbers have ticked upward.

Barickman said he doesn’t oppose such a move, but what he does oppose is the governor’s lack of conversation with the elected lawmakers.

“The decisions being made are made by the governor alone. There is no oversight by the legislative branch and that’s very frustrating to me. During COVID-19, that whole [legislative] process has taken a back seat. I strongly object. This should be more of a collaboration.

“... My biggest criticism is this: All of these decisions are made unilaterally by him. The Legislature has zero oversight in all of this. It’s frustrating. ... Pritzker has taken total control.”

Former teacher sentenced in grooming case

KANKAKEE — A former St. Anne High School teacher was sentenced Tuesday to six months in the Kankakee County jail and 30 months sex offender probation for grooming a male student in 2017.

Alaina Allsteadt, 36, agreed to plead guilty in March. She will have to register as a sexual offender for life.

State sentencing guidelines for the charge are a prison sentence between one and three years and a fine up to $25,000. A defendant can also be given probation.

Judges have the discretion to impose additional penalties, including probation, supervised release, counseling, restraining orders and/or community service.

Grooming refers to the use of a computer and/or other technology to encourage a child to engage in sexual conduct. The victim was a student of Allsteadt, who was a teacher at St. Anne from Aug. 16, 2013, until April 4, 2017, when she resigned her position. Prior to St. Anne, Allsteadt taught at Donovan.

Bourbonnais police began an investigation of Allsteadt after video, pictures and messages were found by a family member of the student on an electronic device and turned them over to Bourbonnais police.

Illinois reports July's highest one-day total of virus cases

SPRINGFIELD — As parts of the nation struggle with a worse coronavirus outbreak than during its high points last spring in other states, Illinois, where officials continue to congratulate residents for keeping the new virus in check, announced Wednesday an increasing number of newly confirmed infections.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker and his state public health director, Dr. Ngoze Ezike, made public pleas to wear masks when outside the home and continue physical distancing and conscientious hygiene to stem the spread of the highly contagious and potentially deadly coronavirus.

The state on Wednesday reported July’s highest one-day total at nearly 1,600 new confirmed cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, prompting a warning from the Democratic governor.

“There are those who mistakenly think, ‘No problem. You can’t eradicate the virus and our numbers are so low, we don’t need to do anything about it,’” Pritzker said at a news conference in Chicago. “To them I would say that in every one of the states like Arizona and Florida that are in full-blown crisis right now, it started with a gradual rise in the number.”

On Wednesday, the state’s number of confirmed virus cases totaled 1,598, with 23 additional deaths. The virus has now contributed to the deaths of 7,347 people in Illinois, among 165,301 people confirmed to have contracted it, many of whom have recovered.

The Democrat’s update came two days after President Donald Trump did an about-face on the pandemic, which he had sought to downplay in recent weeks. Trump warned that it will get worse before it improves and, after spurning them for weeks, urged the use of face coverings to minimize transmission.

“It’s never too late to learn what the right thing to do is,” Pritzker said.

Also Wednesday, Pritzker announced that the Illinois Department of Employment Security is working with federal authorities to crack a fraud ring penetrating the federal Pandemic Unemployment Insurance program in every state. He said it’s likely the perpetrators used personal information stolen previously and are now applying for benefits through the program.

He said anyone who has not applied for unemployment but receives a debit card or a letter from IDES should notify the agency. Officials said additional information is available online from the Federal Trade Commission.