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Riverside leader addresses mandate pushback, misinformation

KANKAKEE — When Phil Kambic gets a moment to let his mind wander, it rarely strays far from the plight associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges it has brought to Kankakee County in general and Riverside Healthcare in particular.

The president and CEO of the county’s largest employer was asked before sitting down to begin a Question & Answer session with the Journal what has been the greatest lesson he has learned in these past 18 months since the pandemic reached Kankakee County in March 2020.

It did not take him long to respond.

“You can never communicate enough,” Kambic said. “If you tell your employees or the community something 10 times, you need to tell people 20 times. I’ve found people hear something I didn’t even say. You cannot communicate enough.”

And in today’s world of information sharing across social media platforms, incorrect information works its way into the mainstream and becomes shared so many times it feels like fact to so many, he said.

Our talk with Kambic will be presented in two parts, with the second appearing in the Weekend Edition of the Journal.

When Riverside Healthcare began administering vaccinations in December 2020, did you anticipate a pushback from some members of Riverside’s staff?

“I have to say that did take me a bit by surprise. There was excitement as the vaccines were being developed, and after what we have been through, I anticipated relief that we finally had a way to really combat the virus. People wanted to, we needed to, get back to normal and here science was giving us that way back and to see people reject that has been surprising.”

What do you believe is the chief misconception regarding the vaccination?

“I think one of the main misconceptions is that the vaccines were not fully tested. I also think that some people have been caught up in the politics around the vaccine, and that is holding them back, which is very unfortunate.

“There is also a lot of incorrect information being shared through a variety of social platforms by sources that are not credible. Simply repeating something over and over again does not make it more credible — social platforms, unfortunately, provide an avenue for this to perpetuate.”

Anti-vaccination proponents have continually stated the vaccination was rushed through development, therefore not thoroughly researched. How do you respond?

“While the vaccine itself went into production faster than ever before, the mRNA technology [Messenger RNA] on which it is based is not new and has been developed over the course of a decade. Because the world demanded a vaccine, virtually all pharmaceutical efforts across the globe focused their work to produce what we have, vaccines that are 95 percent effective and incredibly safe.

“And now, more than 1 billion people across the globe have been vaccinated. That points to a leap of science never before seen. We should all be celebrating this.”

There’s a group of employees that have become very vocal about their opposition to the hospital’s vaccine mandate for staff. What message would you give that group?

“I would, and have, talked with them about our ongoing priority of patient safety. We have an obligation to make sure we are providing the safest care possible for our patients. I understand if people have concerns regarding the vaccine, but we owe the highest measure of protection to our colleagues and our patients.

“Further, I believe our community expects that when their loved ones are in our care, that the caregiver is fully vaccinated as one step of many to provide that safe environment.”

Is the anti-vaccination group a situation of a vocal minority?

“With the national rate of vaccination being more than 65 percent and growing, we know that this group is in the minority. Further, when you look at vaccination rates among doctors and other healthcare professionals, there is an overwhelming majority that is for the vaccine — not just for the patients, but for themselves and their loved ones as well.”

What is your reaction as you see anti-vaccination events, especially those being led by healthcare professionals?

“People absolutely have the right to make their views heard. And they need to do that in whatever means they feel necessary, provided it’s peaceful and safe and does not infringe on the rights of others.

“I am very disappointed that some are doing so by playing up politics of the situation and refusing the validated science by reputable, board-based sources.”

St. Anne Grade School Board revisits stance on mask mandate

ST. ANNE — The St. Anne Grade School District 256 School Board took no action Monday on an item to reconsider the district’s enforcement of the state mask mandate.

The school is currently requiring masks; previously, the board had voted to make masks optional in defiance of Gov. JB Pritzker’s executive order.

After the district was placed on probation by the Illinois State Board of Education — which threatened loss of state funding and participation in Illinois Elementary School Association sports and activities — the board then voted to reverse course and enforce the mandate.

The district’s recognition status was returned when documentation was provided to ISBE that the mask mandate was being followed.

Both times the issue has come to a vote, board members were divided in the decision.

Consideration of the mask mandate was on the agenda again this week as a possible action item.

The board agreed to hold off taking any action on the issue for the time being.

Board members said they expect that by their next meeting on Oct. 25, state officials may have changed their tune on giving local school boards a say in masking policies.

They noted a handful of court cases in which parents have sued Illinois school districts over quarantine procedures, and that further developments are expected in mid-October.

“This could be a moot point,” board member Barbara Emerson said. “If the state is tired of fighting all the parents, they could just say screw it, you guys do what you want.”

Board president Jed Beaupre said there may be other means to explore pushing the issue of local control with the state, such as possible legal action, if board members want to go in that direction.

“Yes, I agree, we could not survive losing $1.4 million,” Beaupre said, referencing the state funding figure presented at the budget hearing earlier in the meeting. “The most we could do is fight this in the courts.”

Superintendent Charles Stegall said that his stance has not changed — he still wants the school to follow the mandate.

He agreed that the district could pursue other means to push the issue of local control, but he said that it simply has too much to lose if it were to defy the mandate again.

“We have no idea how ISBE is going to react if we were to go back against [the mandate],” he said. “We have no idea how IESA is going to react if we go back against it.”

Stegall noted that the district sent a resolution to ISBE and Pritzker’s office in August asking for the return of local control; he said he hasn’t gotten feedback on the letter other than word that it has been received.

“Local control is a great idea, but we very well could have been masking right now anyway, and I will tell you — I’m not going to make it a secret — I probably would have been recommended that anyway at this time, for a period of time, because of the cases we’ve seen in the recent weeks.”

In Kankakee County, the COVID-19 positivity rate is currently 6.1 percent, while 41.76 percent of the population has been vaccinated.

The county has now recorded 17,053 cases and 251 deaths since the pandemic started in March 2020, according to recent data from the Kankakee County Health Department.

In St. Anne Grade School, there are currently nine cases from staff and students combined as well as 18 students in isolation/quarantine, Stegall said.

There are about 340 students and 50 staff members total in the school.

The board heard public comment and had some discussion around revisiting the school’s masking policy before deciding not to bring the matter to a vote.

Public comment

Connie Gullquist, teachers union president, read a statement that she said represented the majority of teachers’ thoughts from a staff survey.

“Regardless of our personal opinions about wearing masks or about government intervention, most of us feel it is in the best interest of our entire school to follow the mask mandate,” she said. “Even if we were under local control, very likely, we would be required to wear masks at this time due to a high number of positive cases of students and staff right now.”

Gullquist said teachers were concerned about the interruption to learning that occurs when students have to quarantine. She noted there was a day last week when seven students were missing from one class.

“How will we be able to close the gaps in learning from last year?” she said.

Ryan Kimberlin, parent of a first-grader, said that now is not the time to relax masking requirements, especially considering the emergence of the delta variant.

“Most of our children still don’t have a choice whether to be vaccinated,” he said. “To protect themselves against the contraction of COVID-19, literally, their first, last and only defense against this virus is masking.”

Monica Pizano, parent of an eighth-grader, said her daughter has a heart condition that was complicated when she contracted COVID-19 last year. Children with health issues should be a bigger consideration, she said.

“Our children’s health and safety should be your No. 1 concern and priority, not wearing an uncomfortable mask,” she said.

Parent Senica Popavich thanked board members for their efforts to stand up for what they thought was right.

“Thank you to those of you who voted previously to defy the mandate,” Popavich said. “As a parent, it told me you were willing to try to take a stance so parents could still have the power and the right to still decide what is best for our children.”

Pro-local stance

Beaupre reiterated that he is in favor of local control and parent choice surrounding masks.

“This should be local control, and if this was local control and we didn’t have a mandate, we would be mask-optional,” he said. “We are not preventing anyone from wearing masks; we are not preventing parents from making their children wear masks if that is what they choose to do.”

He said that while board members have different takes when it comes to requiring masks, the board is unified in its pro- local control stance.

“This is not easy to deal with at all,” Beaupre said. “It’s hard enough to be a school board member normally with the decisions we have to make, and this compounds it 20-fold.”

Board vice president Christopher Tolly said there would be too much risk involved in going back against the mandate, and he feels the district should follow the direction of its attorney and administration.

“I too believe it should be local control, but we are not as St. Anne Grade School in a position to fight this,” Tolly said. “If we lose funding, IESA sports — I couldn’t do that to kids.”

Program aims to provide mental health services for troubled youth

KANKAKEE — Kankakee County State’s Attorney Jim Rowe has seen firsthand how troubled youth end up on the wrong side of the criminal justice system.

Rowe searched for solutions to the problem, and he said there’s a program that can make a difference. He cited the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study.

The 1995-97 study was one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse and neglect and household challenges and later-life health and well-being, according to CDC’s website.

“When [youths] experienced certain types of trauma growing up, their brain forms differently than perhaps children who experienced less or no trauma,” Rowe said, noting it differentiated 10 types of trauma.

“So if a child has experienced any of these 10 types of trauma, you get a point for each one,” he said. “So kids with a 5 or a 6, when they did brain scans, their brains were completely different than the others.”

This is the data Rowe cited in his request of the Kankakee County Board’s Executive Committee on Tuesday for preliminary approval of a lease for space to provide mental health services for court-involved youth. The request was unanimously approved. The move paves the way for Riverside Medical Center to pay the county $125 per month for space in a room at the county probation department at 470 E. Merchant St. in Kankakee.

The measure still has to be approved by the full county board at its next meeting on Oct. 12 and by Riverside leadership, which will be providing the program’s counselors.

The program

Rowe said the ACE study found that for children whose brain development was impacted by trauma, they face future impacts on judgment and mental health later in life. This can lead to increased risk factors.

“Young kids with higher ACE scores are more likely to enter the criminal justice system,” he said. “We’ve got to find a way to interrupt that behavior and treat that trauma. A lot of kids we see coming into the system are in need of mental health services.”

Rowe said the new proposed program is unique in that it will provide mental health services at the point of entering the criminal justice system.

“This is one of the few models in the country where a court system, a criminal court system, is also providing access to these services,” he said. “And with this partnership with Riverside, we have the opportunity to provide it at virtually no cost to the county.”

Riverside will employ a licensed clinical social worker, provide cognitive behavioral therapy, substance abuse counseling and anger management therapy in this one office.

“That licensed clinical social worker is assigned solely to our county and solely for the kids that come through our system, whether it’s victims or offenders,” Rowe said.

Rowe said the program will be offered five days a week, and the appointments will be tied to their court dates as best as they can.

“This is, of course, a long-term solution,” he said. “It’s not going to show immediate impact. But over time, we’re hoping that if kids are getting those services, or getting the counseling or the psychotherapy that they need, long term we’re going to see them less likely to recidivate back into the system.”

The lease for this pilot project is for one year, and Rowe is hopeful it can be renewed after one year with some positive results. He added the program is a coordinated effort among the prosecutors and public defender’s offices, judges and juvenile probation.

“It could be years before we see those numbers start to go down through this treatment, but it’s important we start investing in that,” he said.

Rowe said he could not give a definitive start date for the program until it gains final approval by both parties.

Employees, supporters protest vaccine mandates

KANKAKEE — Tina Irvin, a 37-year Kankakee area registered nurse from Momence, said she is afraid to look inside her mailbox for fear there will be a notice rejecting her exemption request for not taking the COVID-19 vaccination as required by her employer.

Late Wednesday afternoon, she stood with other protesters — mostly healthcare workers — demonstrating their solidarity against what they believe is an improper mandate to become vaccinated against the pandemic-causing COVID-19 virus.

“I know they think we don’t know how to think for ourselves, but we do,” she said. “I’m not getting this. I’m afraid to look at my email.”

Whether she will receive her exemption or not, the next month will be likely tension-filled for numerous employees at Riverside Healthcare and AMITA Health St. Mary’s Hospitals as their deadlines for employees to get vaccinated inch near.

At Riverside, employees have until Oct. 31 to receive their vaccination. If they are not vaccinated by then, those employees deemed not to be exempt from the mandate will be suspended for two weeks and then terminated if still not in compliance.

At AMITA, the deadline is Nov. 12 and the resulting procedure is the same.

On a summer-like late afternoon Wednesday, employees from the two local hospitals and their supporters lined the West Court Street bridge — between Wall Street and Kennedy Drive — which basically spans between the two healthcare organizations.

Passing motorists provided a steady stream of honking horns showing their support for the group, but what impact the demonstration had on the two organizations appeared to be little.

In a requested response to Wednesday’s protest, Riverside’s marketing director Carl Maronich said, “As an organization with deep roots in the community, we acknowledge that some of our friends and neighbors have strong feelings regarding vaccine mandates. We respect those community members and their right to express their views publicly.

“While we strive to avoid issues that generate controversy, we must state clearly that the COVID-19 vaccine offers our patients, employees and community the best protection from serious or even fatal complications that could result from the virus.”

Among those with strong feelings is Neelie Panozzo, a nurse practitioner and a leader in the local movement seeking freedom to decline the vaccination. She said she was not surprised by the large turnout of Wednesday’s protest.

“We are going to lose our jobs. We are being forced out because of our views,” she said. “They are pushing very competent healthcare workers out of Kankakee County.

“I never knew my job could so easily be at risk,” she said.

Panozzo asked how the community will be served if a significant portion of hospital employees lose their jobs.

In an earlier interview with Riverside President and CEO Phil Kambic, the Journal learned that an estimated 1 to 3 percent of staff could be in danger of losing their positions as a result of non-vaccination. That could mean up to 100 people at Riverside. Figures for AMITA Health were unavailable.

Regardless, the employees and supporters at Wednesday’s protest are digging in, partially on the basis of freedom of choice.

“This is not just about a vaccination, but about freedom,” said Michele Barbee, of Kankakee.

She is not employed by either hospital but said she attended the protest to support the workers who are affected by the mandates that she says are an overstepping of boundaries by the government and hospitals.

“It’s always time for people’s voices to be heard,” said Barbee, who noted she had contracted the virus a year ago and has now been vaccinated.

For Megan VanVoorst, a Limestone resident who has been a registered nurse for about two years at AMITA, she said though the future is uncertain, she remains opposed to the vaccination mandate.

“I’m hoping things will change before Nov. 12,” she said of AMITA’s deadline for employees.

Her mother, Dana VanVoorst, a licensed practical nurse at Kankakee County VA Clinic in Bourbonnais, was much more straightforward.

“We are not going to take the vaccine. We shouldn’t have to,” she said, noting that like her daughter, she has filed an exemption request.

Standing in front of a U.S. flag draped over the West Court Street bridge over the Kankakee River, Mike Hildebrand said he was on hand to lend support.

“This should be a personal choice, not a government choice,” said the retired area public works employee from Bourbonnais. “If they can tell you to do this, they can tell you to do anything. It seems there is no debate allowed here. It’s my way or the highway.”

For the administration of AMITA Health St. Mary’s Hospital, the patients are at the heart of their mandate.

“AMITA Health has been on the forefront of caring for COVID-19 patients since the earliest days of the pandemic,” the hospital said in a statement following Wednesday’s protest. “It’s more important than ever to take every possible action to protect our patients, our community and one another from this virus. Our medical experts agree with national medical leaders — vaccination is our best way out of this pandemic.”

The AMITA statement added vaccines have proven to be safe and very effective in lessening illness in breakthrough cases.

“Only by vaccinating will we stop this virus from circulating and mutating,” it said. “The health and safety of all is our first and foremost priority.”