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Clock ticks down on vaccine mandate

While the COVID-19 vaccination mandates for healthcare workers in Kankakee County is certainly not a game, it would be fair to say the clock is nearing 0:00 for employees to become vaccinated.

While Riverside Healthcare has established Oct. 31 as its deadline and AMITA Health St. Mary’s Hospital’s deadline coming Nov. 12, there is a growing number of employees for both organizations who have complied.

Kyle Benoit, Riverside’s chief operating officer, noted the organization’s vaccination rate for its 2,913-member staff has risen from 65 percent on Sept. 20, to 84 percent as of Thursday. He believes the number will grow significantly higher within the next 15 days.

“We are very happy with the progress,” he said. “More and more of our workforce are getting this done. We certainly don’t want to lose people, but we must protect our patients. I believe more people are getting more comfortable with this.”

Benoit estimated there are less than 300 full-time equivalent employees at Riverside who are unvaccinated at this point. He also noted Riverside has granted 75 FTE medical or religious exemptions to the vaccine requirement.

For AMITA Health, it reported 70 percent of its 760-member workforce have now been vaccinated.

Dr. Kalisha Hill, AMITA’s chief medical officer, noted it is unfortunate it took the mandate to get greater compliance. She said AMITA was at 30 percent compliance in the early summer months, so great strides have been made.

And, she noted, vaccinations are the only way the community will overcome the spread of the coronavirus.

“[To] those not vaccinated and being told they must get it, we can’t test our way out of this pandemic,” she said. “... Getting vaccinated is about the greater good. We are hoping those who remain unvaccinated will become vaccinated. We are trying to give everyone the time to make this decision.

“Right now it is all hands on deck regarding the vaccination,” Hill said. “We make sure they understand the gravity of this situation.”

Both organizations’ rates far exceed Kankakee County’s vaccination rate, which stands at 42 percent.


Of those approximately 300 Riverside employees who are not vaccinated, one is Beth Norwick, a 31-year registered nurse.

The Bourbonnais resident said she believes she will lose her job in the coming weeks as she doesn’t plan to become vaccinated.

Norwick stressed she is not a so-called “anti-vaccination” person. She simply believes the vaccination is not “effective or necessary for everyone.” She noted she has personally cared for patients at the hospital who have become ill despite being vaccinated.

She noted she has had COVID-19 herself.

“It’s not a good risk-benefit balance,” she said of getting the vaccine.

She stressed she is fully capable of doing her job successfully with the use of proper protective wear.

“Accommodations can be made for those with strongly held beliefs. I feel like Riverside has chosen to make this commitment, and I don’t believe these guidelines are within our [U.S.] Constitutional guidelines. This will have to be stepped back eventually,” Norwick said.

But, Norwick is willing to accept her fate.

“It’s a lot of years I’ve served this community. I’ve been a dependable, loyal employee. I’m not willing to sacrifice my well-being for the mandate of this shot. I’m not doing this to be defiant or to make waves to Riverside,” she said.


Dr. Annabelle Veerapaneni, an oncologist with Riverside, noted she has counseled many patients as they have brought vaccination questions and concerns to her.

She noted that of the numerous conversations she’s attempted to have with unvaccinated patients, only two informed her they did not want to discuss the issue.

“I think that’s pretty good. There are valid reasons why people are concerned and it’s due to all the misinformation they have heard,” she said.

She noted with past vaccination programs, there was certainly more trust in the medical establishment.

“People now question the ‘experts,’” she said. “... So much of these concerns can be fear-based.” She also noted so much of the nation’s COVID-19 vaccination program is laced with political overtones.

“We’ve pulled together in so many ways as a country, but for this vaccine being connected to so many political issues ...” she said, “we simply have to do this.”

She has told people the vaccination is like being handed a parachute as your airplane is going down.

“I would hope when given the opportunity to protect yourself, you would jump at that chance,” she said. “... The technology is around. We know these vaccines work. This strikes me as odd. I don’t understand the rationale. This has been studied for a long time. It’s gone through the trials.”

She said she is saddened by what she describes as the “callousness and coldness” of those who reject the protection of vaccine offers, in particular those associated with the medical profession.

“It’s sad when I hear people in this profession spreading misinformation,” she said. “If you are spreading misinformation, you need to stop doing that.”

6 Riverside nurses file lawsuit against vaccination mandate

KANKAKEE — Six Riverside Healthcare nurses have filed a lawsuit against the healthcare provider saying that its COVID-19 vaccine mandate for employees violates their “sincerely held moral convictions.”

The law firm representing the six described Riverside’s action as a “ruthless overreach.”

In addition to Riverside, its president and CEO, Phil Kambic, is named as a defendant.

The suit, filed in Kankakee County’s 21st Circuit Court by Chicago’s Liberty Justice Center, a national nonprofit law firm, states Riverside’s “blanket rejection of any and all exemption requests is a violation of the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act and Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker’s executive order,” according to a press release from Liberty.

According to Kyle Benoit in a previous interview, Riverside’s chief operating officer, the hospital has not denied all exemption requests. Benoit said that 75 full-time equivalent employees have been granted exemptions.

Riverside Healthcare issued a statement this morning regarding the nurses’ lawsuit.

“As a healthcare provider, we believe protecting the health and safety of our patients and employees is our top responsibility and must be our No. 1 priority,” the hospital said.

“While we cannot comment on specifics related to pending litigation, we remain fully confident requiring our employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine will allow us to provide the safest environment possible for everyone we serve.

“It is also important to know that the vast majority of our employees have either received the vaccine or an approved medical or religious/strongly held belief exemption.”

Pritzker’s executive order referenced in the lawsuit was issued Aug. 26 and mandated that health care workers be vaccinated against COVID-19 or be tested weekly. The order, the law firm states, also allowed an option for weekly testing if vaccination would “violate or forgo a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance.”

On Aug. 27, Riverside issued a memo to all employees that it was implementing a vaccine mandate in order to be in compliance with the state’s mandate. The memo explained employees could seek an exemption.

In the single-count lawsuit, the six employees are seeking a permanent injunction preventing Riverside from enforcing the employee mandate in any form; state the mandate violates the health care rights act; award damages of a least $2,500 per the six plaintiffs; and for Riverside to pay legal expenses.

The firm is representing: Neelie Panozzo, a nurse practitioner with 24 years of experience; Valerie Kietzman, a registered nurse of four years at Riverside; Judy Busato, a registered nurse of seven months at Riverside; Kathryn Hamblem, a nurse practitioner of four years at Riverside; Carmen Wymore, a registered nurse of five years at Riverside; and Amy Memenga, a 26-year nurse manager who claims to have been fired in September.

“The nurses worked throughout the pandemic, putting their lives and their families’ lives on the line. They were celebrated as ‘essential workers’ and ‘heroes’ for their courage — and rightly so,” said Daniel Suhr, managing attorney at Liberty Justice Center. “And now, 20 months into the pandemic, Riverside Healthcare is showing them the door unless they violate their religious beliefs and their conscience.”

He added: “This is a ruthless overreach aimed at coercing front-line workers to do something they sincerely believe is wrong. These nurses know the virus better than anyone and are making a deeply personal, individual choice that should be respected. Not only is that the right thing to do, but it’s Illinois law.”

Panozzo, who is also a commissioner on the board of commissioners for the Kankakee County Health Department, said she has dedicated her life to living out her faith by serving her patients.

“I believe I am called to love and serve my patients, especially those who are frail and vulnerable. I am also following my faith’s teachings when I say I cannot accept this vaccine. I am ashamed that Riverside will not respect my sincere beliefs.”

State seeks change

Legal action on the grounds of Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act violations is not unique to the situation at Riverside.

Pritzker’s deputy chief of staff, Emily Bittner, stated the health care rights act is being invoked in employer mandate lawsuits throughout the state. And, she says, it’s being applied inappropriately.

The act was first adopted in 1977 to protect doctors, pharmacists and other health providers who are asked to compromise their conscience in the course of practicing their profession.

“The administration supports efforts to clarify the law, so it cannot be misinterpreted by fringe elements,” Bittner stated in a published report.

The governor is seeking to amend the law to eliminate this growing interpretation of the act.

School hours change at Kennedy, King due to bus driver shortage

KANKAKEE — As a result of the school bus driver shortage, Kankakee School District 111 will be shifting the start and end times for Kennedy and King middle schools by a half-hour starting on Monday.

Times for Kennedy and King are currently 9 a.m. to 3:40 p.m. and will shift 30 minutes earlier, so the new school hours will be 8:30 a.m. to 3:10 p.m.

At the Kankakee School Board meeting this week, Assistant Superintendent of Finance Nicole Terrell-Smith said the change will decrease the number of bus drivers needed from 47 down to 37 daily.

“It is expected that this will shorten ride times and alleviate the driver shortage issue, which should also free up resources to better support our athletics and other after-school activities,” she said.

Parents were being notified of the change in school times through email, robocall, Facebook, and on the district’s website, Terrell-Smith said.

She noted that the staff members affected by the change were consulted in the decision to shift school times, and the district would “closely monitor the impact of this change.”

“The staff at both schools agreed they would support the change and that it was in the best interest of the students,” Terrell-Smith said.

Kankakee School Board approves superintendent salary increase

KANKAKEE — The Kankakee School Board approved this week a 4 percent salary increase for Superintendent Genevra Walters.

Walters’ current base salary is $231,666 per year. The 4 percent increase, or $9,266, brings that figure up to $240,932 per year.

The pay raise was tabled during the previous board meeting. It was approved 6-0 during Tuesday’s meeting, with one board member, Deb Johnston, abstaining.

Walters’ new salary figure goes into effect for the current 2021-22 school year.

Board President Barbara Wells said that Walters’ performance evaluation was supposed to be discussed in April, with the possible raise to go into effect July 1.

The superintendent’s evaluation takes place yearly.

Wells said the board was distracted by COVID-19 matters and didn’t get around to discussing the matter at the time.

“She did not ask for a raise,” Wells said of Walters. “She is just doing what she has to do, and she waited for the board.”

Before voting in favor of the raise, board member Christopher Bohlen explained his decision.

“The accomplishments of Dr. Walters in the past school year are substantial, from multimillions in grants — and I’m not talking about COVID funds — to completion of the building projects that have been done,” he said. “I think she has met all of the goals and exceeded all of the goals that we set in the past school year, and based upon that, I’m going to vote yes.”

Walters was first hired as Kankakee superintendent in 2014.