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Kankakee students, families join local mask making efforts

KANKAKEE — Almost as soon as the need arose for protective face masks, people started dusting off their sewing kits and threading their needles.

While surgical and N95 respirator masks are in short supply and needed by medical workers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends others cover their faces with a scarf or homemade fabric mask when in public to limit the spread of coronavirus.

Facebook groups dedicated to the cause have sprung up in communities all over the country, including Kankakee Mask Makers II in Kankakee County. Instructions on crafting homemade masks are widely available online.

One of the most recent efforts comes from Kankakee School District 111 families who are crafting cloth face masks in their school colors for donation around the community.

Bill Yohnka, community engagement specialist for the district, has been delivering materials to families who have volunteered to cut and/or sew materials. He just picked up his first batch of finished masks on Monday.

“It really helps us all when we can’t be together, feel together on a project,” Yohnka said.

The finished products are red and blue cloth masks with the school district logo printed on the corner.

School officials thought of the idea to get families in the district involved with local mask making efforts, and Yohnka agreed to facilitate the project.

“I said, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’ I took a couple 4-H courses doing projects when I was younger,” Yohnka said. “I can deal with some fabric and then reach out to families.”

Yohnka put a call out on the district’s Facebook page for families with sewing skills or with children who can cut simple shapes who wanted to lend a hand to the project. He bought as much 100 percent cotton fabric in the school colors as he could from Walmart, and despite some difficulty procuring elastic, he was able to gather enough materials for the first batch of volunteers.

Then he got on his bike and started delivering packages of fabric to people’s front doors.

“So many people are just coming out of the woodwork wanting to help,” Yohnka said.

About 30 families reached out indicating they wanted to participate, he said.

One such family included Christine Case and her daughter, Charlotte, a sixth-grader at Kennedy Middle School.

Case said she and her husband had already been looking into making masks and ordered some materials because they felt it was something they could do to help their community. When the school district asked if anyone could cut or sew fabric for masks, they saw their opportunity to contribute.

“It’s been cool to have that family project, to have the sewing machine set up and to know we are working toward a shared goal. That felt good,” Case said.

While Case hasn’t taken out her sewing machine in a while, she said sewing is a skill that “just comes back to you.”

“It is a lot easier than you think,” she said. “This does not have to be the prettiest sewing job. You basically just need to know how to operate a machine and sew a straight line.”

Charlotte soon took over the project in the Case home. After her dad taught her how to use the sewing machine, she figured the rest out on her own and had about a dozen masks completed in a couple hours.

“It’s a good, simple intro project,” Case said. “It’s a good way to get your kids involved and help them understand this is how we can help the immediate community.”

Case suggested people could help the cause by getting any quarter-inch elastic they may have sitting around in drawers to people who are sewing masks, as the material is in short supply right now. Another idea for those who want to help but don’t have sewing supplies or skills would be to volunteer to cut materials and pair up with a sew-savvy friend or neighbor, she added.

“I was really pleased to see the school district taking the helm with this,” Case said. “I know a lot of us feel like we’re twiddling our thumbs at home, so it felt like a really good way to get lots of people on board.”

Yohnka said he will be reaching out via Facebook to connect with individuals or groups in the community in need of fabric face masks. Now that health officials are advising people wear masks in public, there probably won’t be a problem finding homes for them, he added.

“Most of all we just kind of wanted to do something to remind people that our school community is still a community even though we can’t be together,” Yohnka said.

Those interested in participating can email Yohnka at william-yohnka@ksd111.org.

National Guard personnel assisting at Shapiro

KANKAKEE — Medical personnel from the Illinois National Guard have been assigned to assist at Shapiro Developmental Center.

The facility has recorded 42 percent of Kankakee County’s 244 confirmed cases of COVID-19. As of Wednesday, 78 residents and 25 staff have tested positive, according to Illinois Department of Human Services, which operates the facility for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The center’s 1,195-person staff cares for 478 residents.

“We asked the National Guard to come in to help us take temperatures at our temperature checks for staff,” IDPH communications director Meghan Powers said in an email to the Daily Journal.

“This will allow our direct care staff who had been working at the temperature checks to go back to providing care for our residents.”

Gov. JB Pritzker’s disaster proclamation on March 9 authorized Army and Air National Guard soldiers to help with the state’s response to COVID-19. Since then, soldiers have been providing civil, medical and logistical assistance, including engineering and HVAC duties.

17 cases of COVID-19 reported at Riverside's Miller Healthcare

Daily Journal staff report

Riverside Healthcare is reporting that 17 residents of its Miller Healthcare have tested positive with COVID-19, according to a press release from the Kankakee County Health Department.

The infected residents are in isolation in the building’s newly converted negative pressure hall. A negative pressure area dispels the air to the outside rather than recirculating it throughout that area, which helps eliminate potential spread of illness.

All residents have been proactively tested so that they can be properly isolated, the press release said. Family members of residents were notified of the testing by Miller staff.

The facility will soon have the capacity for 55 residents to be placed in negative pressure isolation if needed. All staff at Miller continue to follow strict protocols for their protection and that of the residents, Riverside President and CEO Phil Kambic said in the press release.

He also noted they have added numerous clinical resources including additional staff at all levels.

“I want you to know that the strength of our entire system is being brought to bear on the situation,” Kambic said. “Our leadership at the facility and throughout the Riverside continuum are working seamlessly around the clock to further protect and care for these residents.”

The health department continues to monitor cases of COVID-19 within congregant settings throughout the county. To date, 142 of the county’s 242 confirmed cases of COVID-19, or 59%, have come from congregant-living facilities.

“Individuals in congregant-living facilities become some of the most vulnerable, especially those in long-term care facilities,” said Lindsay Wilson, MPH, the health department’s coordinator for health promotions and emergency response. “For this reason, we are tracking cases among this population very closely.”

Pritzker mulling a mandate that masks be worn in public

The Illinois Department of Public Health on Wednesday reported an increase of 1,346 confirmed cases in Illinois in the previous 24 hours, bringing the total of 24,593 in the state. Residents in 89 counties are affected.

There were 80 additional virus-related deaths in 12 counties over that same time, bringing the state’s total fatality count to 948.

Dr. Ngozi Ezike, the department’s director, said “community mitigation strategies” such as washing hands frequently, cleaning commonly used items, wearing a mask when outside and social distancing are contributing to a “slowed rate of increase.”

Both she and Gov. JB Pritzker said the number of residents who have or had COVID-19 is likely higher than what the state reports due to lack of available tests.

“We have to stay the course,” Ezike said. “Remember that actions that we take today will set us up for a better future. We are doing this together.”

The governor added that one “mitigation measure” he is contemplating is a mandate for residents to wear masks in public.

“Anything that we can do going forward that will protect people and at the same time make it more likely that we can have slightly different conditions for stay-at-home, better conditions, is a good move,” Pritzker said.

The governor said he will rely on epidemiologists, scientists and other experts to determine what measures should be taken to protect Illinoisans.

His administration is still considering what steps should be taken by April 30 to either lift or extend the stay-at-home order.

“My No. 1 consideration, my No. 1 consideration, is the life, safety and health of the people of our state,” Pritzker said. “...We’ve got to [make these decisions] in a fashion that really works for everybody so we keep customers safe, that we keep workers safe.”

The governor added, “decisions need to be made soon” about schools, so parents and students have an idea of what the next two months will be like. A final determination will come “in the next two weeks,” he said.