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Kankakee County's COVID numbers creep up but remain ‘optimistic'

Although Kankakee County Health Department administrator John Bevis warns the delta variant is present in Kankakee County, the county’s COVID-19 numbers are somewhat optimistic. The total Region 7 positivity rate is at 3.3 percent, with Kankakee County’s rate at 1.4 percent and Will County’s at 3.6 percent.

“That has slowly crept up in the last month,” Bevis said in his monthly health department report during Tuesday’s county board executive committee meeting in the county administration building. “However, the good news is last month Kankakee was at 2.3 on its own, and Will County was at 1.2. Those numbers have almost reversed. We’re at 1.4, so we’re holding pretty good there with our positivity rate.”

There have been a total of 14,859 COVID cases in Kankakee County, which is in increase of 197 cases in the past month.

“That’s an average of six per day, so we are seeing reduced numbers of positive cases,” Bevis said.

There were seven additional deaths in the past month which brings the total number of COVID deaths to 243. There were also 181 recoveries, bringing the total to 14,462.

The number of county residents totally vaccinated is at 40,035, which is 36.39 percent of the total population. That is also more than 15 percentage points higher than April when the vaccination rate was 21.25 percent and nearly 4 points higher than June’s 32.4 percent.

“Now it’s just going to be little incremental jump as we go,” Bevis said. “We’re not seeing the numbers at the [vaccine] clinics that we were early on. We have a large percentage of the population that’s vaccinated, and we’re just trying to convince those that aren’t yet to come in and get their vaccinations.

“And then obviously, we do have a number of individuals who are not officially yet eligible to get vaccines, because there’s just not a vaccine available for them yet per their age — 12 and under.”

County board member Todd Sirois asked Bevis how many people out of the county’s total population are not eligible to be vaccinated. Bevis didn’t readily have those numbers, but he could add some substance to the numbers, he said.

“What I can tell you is that the population of 18-and-under is the largest group of population within the county,” Bevis said, adding that the second group is the 65-and-over.

“Obviously until there’s not a vaccine available for the 12-and-unders, which rumor is that they are out there preparing one. We just don’t know when it’ll be available.”

As a reminder, Bevis said the Pfizer vaccine can be administered to those 12 to 18 years of age.

In his report, Bevis stressed that the Delta variant spreads up to 70 times more than the original COVID. It can lead to more strain on the hospitals and health systems, more illnesses and potentially more deaths.

The report further showed that 90 percent of the hospitalizations and deaths currently recorded are unvaccinated individuals. Bevis said to prevent the spread, get vaccinated, wear a mask when in public, especially if unvaccinated, get tested if you have symptoms, avoid crowded areas and still wash hands often and use sanitizer when that is not possible.

Vaccination sites in the county are at the Kankakee County Health Department, Riverside Medical Center, Jewel in Kankakee and Bourbonnais, all three Walgreens locations, Kroger, Meijer and Walmart in Bradley and Kankakee.

Majority of Kankakee school board leaning toward mask requirement

UPDATE: On Aug. 4, Gov. Pritzker issued a statewide mandate that masks must be worn indoors at all pre-K - 12 schools, reversing the state's previous stance that local school boards would be able to decide.

KANKAKEE — School district policy on face masks in the 2021-22 year was a topic of discussion during Monday’s Kankakee School Board meeting, with the majority of board members expressing that wearing masks should be a requirement.

The four board members who spoke on the topic agreed that face masks should be required for all students and staff, noting a low vaccination rate in Kankakee County and concerns about emerging coronavirus variants.

Though no decision was made Monday, the board is scheduled to vote on a back-to-school plan and mask policy during its next meeting at 7 p.m. Aug. 9 at Kankakee High School.

Board member Christopher Bohlen said the district should mandate the use of masks in schools, adding that less than 37 percent of the population in Kankakee County has been vaccinated.

“That’s a dismal performance, but it means that 36.7 percent, at best probably, of students in our school are coming from vaccinated homes,” he said. “It means that nobody from the age of 3 to 12 has been vaccinated, which is about three-fourths of our students, and it means a sketchy number of kids from 12 to 18 have been vaccinated.”

Bohlen also noted concerns about the delta variant, a mutated coronavirus that spreads more easily than other versions.

He said that while many staff members have been vaccinated, the continued use of masks would help protect those who have not, along with being an additional safeguard for those who have.

“If our concern is the safety of kids, I think that the best option is to mandate, in the building and on the buses, to have masks,” Bohlen said. “If you’d asked me two years ago if I thought a school district should mandate anything like this, I would have said absolutely not, but the world has changed.”

Board member Jess Gathing said that, considering the emergence of the delta variant and that many people have not been vaccinated, he also thinks masks should be required in Kankakee schools.

“I do believe now myself that if we’re going for the safety of our children and the safety of the people that live and work in this district, that we at District 111 need to mask up,” he said.

Gathing said the goal should be to do anything possible to save lives.

“It’s just a safety issue at this time, and if we can keep everybody sound and safe, then that’s the best thing in the world that we could do.”

Board member Deb Johnston said she agreed that masks should be required, noting that she has not gotten sick, even with a cold, over the past year, which she attributes to the use of masks.

“Usually during the year I get some kind of illness, but having the mask, I didn’t get sick last year,” she said. “It’s kind of weird to think that, but if it’s going to keep people from getting sick, no matter what it is, I suppose it’s a good thing.”

Board member Mary Archie said that masks are “very important for the safety of our school and our community.” She added that families that don’t want their children wearing masks all day have the option to continue with remote or hybrid learning.

“If you have even five kids in the classroom, and one of them has the virus, that’s five different families that it affects; that’s how it can spread,” Archie said. “If you have more than five, think about if you had 10 students, and that’s 10 families in the community. Then that spreads and spreads, and we’re in big trouble.”

In a July 19 survey of Illinois school districts in the Large Unit District Association (LUDA), Kankakee School District 111 indicated it would not be requiring masks for students.

Superintendent Genevra Walters said she was planning to propose a mask-optional policy for next school year.

However, based on the board discussion leaning in the opposite direction, she will change that recommendation, which will come to a vote in two weeks at the next board meeting.

“After reviewing CDC guidelines and looking at the Covid delta variant, the board members feel like, in order to keep everyone safe, it needs to be mandated,” she said.

Musical lineup for two-day MusicFest

Starting at 5 p.m. Friday, Merchant Street MusicFest is back after having to cancel 2020’s festivities due to the pandemic. The two-day festival returns to Harold & Jean Miner Festival Square, located at 199 S. East Ave., Kankakee, with 30 musical acts on three stages.

Local acts such as Unified Voices of Kankakee and Tall Paul and His Honky Tonk Band are set to perform while the headlining performance from Tony! Toni! Toné! will close out the weekend. The R&B group popular in the late ’80s and early ’90s will perform at 9:45 p.m. Saturday on the Merchant Street Stage.

Festival director Allison Beasley said that they try each year to make the musical acts be 30 percent localized and 70 percent regional or national. She said that this year’s event has “a real diverse array of genres.”

“A lot of times people will say, ‘I don’t know these bands,’ and it’s like, ‘Well, you will know them by the end of the weekend,” she said.

“That’s the fun part of it, it’s like this adventure of discovery and finding new music and new people and new food and things you didn’t know existed before.”

While they made a few changes due to the pandemic, such as pausing this year on the kid’s zone, it will still be the beloved music event the community knows it to be.

“We feel so appreciative that we can still do an event like this and we can come together as a community and celebrate music, art, food and each other,” Beasley said about coming back after COVID-19 canceled last year’s plans.

“When something like that has been taken away from you and then you get it back, you’re just so grateful.”

In addition to the music, there will also be a number of art vendors, as well as food and drink options. Art will be for sale from One Love Krystal, Cocoa’s Closet, Ebony Pearls Boutique, Cricket Time, Lilla Made, Frank, C&L Fine Goods Boutique and Gracie Pie Apothecary.

Food vendors include Bamboo Island, Brother George’s BBQ, Créme of the Crop, Conway’s Concessions, Chef Vaughn’s Kitchen, MiaBella’s Wood Fired Pizza, Mr. K’s Chuckwagon, Oberweis, Que It Up, Uncle T’s Food Truck, Rebel Ice Cream, Martinez Tacos and Uplifted Bistro.

Presale tickets are now on sale at Kankakee Public Library and will be available until 7 p.m. Thursday. The cost is $8 for one day or $15 for the weekend. After that, tickets will be available at the gate the days-of for $10 per day. Due to pandemic-related shipping delays, they will not be selling tickets online this year.

For more information, visit merchantstreetmusicfest.com or call 815-939-4564.