As the director of nursing at Harvest View Senior Living in Herscher, Jamie Sparenberg remembers the fear her residents experienced when the COVID-19 pandemic first started.
“They were not educated, so we worked a lot on that,” she said. “A few of them actually thought that it was in the air, so they wouldn’t leave the room. They just wanted to be a recluse, so we had to educate them that it’s OK to go outside and sit on your patio.”
With precautions in place and in-person visits shut down for a while, the facility fought off COVID-19 until vaccinations were made available at Harvest View in January.
“Once the vaccination rolled through, it was kind of like the entire demeanor of the facility changed,” Sparenberg said. “Everybody was happier. It was like a weight was lifted, you could just feel the tension, you know, being removed from the building.”
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and Centers for Disease Control and Protection require long-term care facilities to self-report their COVID and vaccination levels at least once per week.
Of the six Kankakee County facilities that receive federal dollars and have data publicly available, none have reached 75 percent of employees vaccinated, a benchmark the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living set for the end of June.
All six facilities have 60 percent or higher of residents vaccinated but between 25 percent and 65 percent of staff vaccinated, as of July 25.
Just under 60 percent of nursing home staff have been vaccinated across Illinois.
“The data that we’re seeing shows that nursing homes are drastically behind the benchmark for vaccination, and that is directly tied to the quality of life and care residents are going to be able to receive,” said Lori Hendren, associate state director of AARP Illinois.
While COVID-19 cases and deaths have dropped steadily since the vaccine’s debut, including in nursing homes, the recent resurgence caused by the Delta variant is raising alarm because it is more contagious.
With care workers unvaccinated, health officials say there is a greater chance for coronavirus to be spread from outside a facility to elderly people who might have already weakened immune systems.
The location that receives public funding with the highest staff vaccination rate is Ascension Living Heritage Village in Kankakee with 61.91 percent.
“We are proud of our vaccination rates and continue to encourage our residents, staff and resident families to get vaccinated,” a representative from Ascension said in a statement. “Our participation rates continue to increase month over month.”
Joining other corporations, Ascension began to require employees to be vaccinated at all locations on July 27.
At Harvest View — a private facility with a staff of around 50 and a 42-bed capacity — the focus has been more on education than regulation.
“We have provided clinics to make it easy for [staff] to get the vaccine, but we leave it up to their choice as we do feel that it is really up to them,” Sparenberg said.
Now, 100 percent of residents and 70 percent of staff are vaccinated, according to Sparenberg.
She saw getting vaccinated as a duty and got the shot at the first clinic Harvest View held in January.
“I can’t promote something that I don’t believe in myself,” she said. “We work in health care, you have to want to protect people, you want to take care of people, that is what we are bred to do.”
Sparenberg understands that some people have their own reasoning for not wanting a vaccine, but she wants to make sure her workers receive accurate and factual information about the vaccine and have a chance to ask questions.
“Sometimes with larger corporations, they just don’t have the time or the staffing to do it, but I take that time with my people because I feel it’s necessary,” she said.
Facilities that offer rehabilitation or short-term care options may have more turnover with residents and staff, making the employee vaccination data tracking and education less consistent.
Last week, the Illinois Department of Public Health incorporated the CDC and CMS data into its vaccine database at dph.illinois.gov/covid19/long-term-care-facility-data, which now displays a map of facilities with color-coded percentages of vaccinations and can be filtered by county.
AARP Illinois helped advocate for this change, and AARP gave feedback to CMS to make existing public data more transparent in a July letter.
“Family members need to understand what is truly happening in the facility and know that their residents and their loved ones are protected,” Hendren said. “They need to understand that they’re on track with vaccination and if the staff is vaccinated.”
AARP operates its own data dashboard, which tracks nursing home data beyond cases and vaccinations to staffing and PPE shortages.
As for how facilities can improve their staff vaccination rates, Hendren emphasized that actual conversations between employers and staff are important, which Sparenberg echoed.
“We’re a prime example of the conversations working, the vaccinations working; we’ve been able to stay 100 percent COVID-free here,” Sparenberg said.
Public health officials gave a COVID-19 update during an Illinois House health care committee hearing Monday, leaving some with even more questions.
State Rep. Adam Niemerg asked for specific data from Illinois Department of Public Health acting state epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Patrick about youth hospitalizations. Patrick couldn’t immediately provide that data, but said children who contract COVID-19 can sicken others.
“We can’t just pull the kids out and ignore the fact that severe illness can happen to others as well,” Patrick said, noting that there were increased cases of children getting COVID-19 after visiting summer camp and bringing it back to their home communities.
IDPH later provided a chart showing historical data of hospitalizations with COVID-19 diagnoses for two sets of people 17 and under.
The peak hospitalization for those under 12 statewide was Nov. 1, 2020, with 105 hospitalized across the state. That dropped in the months after. For July 1, 2021, IDPH says there were 57 children under 12 hospitalized, or half of the peak in November.
There were fewer 12- to 17-year-olds hospitalized during that same time frame, from August 2020 to July 2021. That category peaked at 72 hospitalized statewide on Nov. 1, 2020.
Niemerg said the most vulnerable elderly population is being vaccinated, and criticized the governor’s mask mandate on children in schools.
“When I look at all of these data and when I have these conversations and I see the [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidance as ‘recommended,’ and I see the IDPH having guidance as ‘recommended,’ that local control is universally what’s being recommended here, it is greatly concerning to me that the governor can edict to the entire state a universal mask mandate,” Niemerg said.
There were also questions about testing for the delta variant. Health officials said that’s a more difficult test to conduct, as it requires genetic sequencing, but they extrapolate from testing that has been done that the delta variant is circulating throughout the state.
East Side Health District CEO Elizabeth Patton-Whiteside told lawmakers she needs more resources for nursing staff and called for fewer restrictions on how grant dollars can be used. She also said there’s a battle against misinformation in getting younger people vaccinated.
“I’m constantly fighting TikTok, Snapchat and the rest of that, because of all of the false information that goes out in those media sources to the teens,” Patton-Whiteside said. “My teens, when I ask them ‘why won’t you take the shot,’ they tell me about TikTok. That’s not good.”
State Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago, also raised an alarm about mixed messaging.
“There’s so many different talking heads out there that are giving so much different information, so who do you trust,” Flowers said.
There are too many people who don’t have access to health care, Flowers said, and may feel they’re being shamed for not getting vaccinated, regardless of their reasons.
While they encourage vaccination, public health officials say people should talk with their primary-care physician to determine what’s best for them.
KANKAKEE — Two weapons confiscated by area law enforcement agencies on Saturday are believed to have been stolen from an Illinois State Police vehicle on Aug. 3, according to the Kankakee County State’s Attorney’s Office.
Stefan Sampson, 18, of Grant Park, was arrested and charged with aggravated possession of a stolen firearm. Kankakee County Circuit Judge Kathy Bradshaw-Elliott set Sampson’s bond at $150,000.
According to a police report, deputies were called to the area of 1200 East 11750N Road on Saturday for shots fired. Deputies recovered seven spent shotgun shells as well as 76 shell casings from an AR-15, according to the report. At the scene, officers found the target of the shooting was a road sign.
Authorities were able to determine that the incident was related to the Aug. 3 theft, believing the weapons were those stolen from an ISP vehicle. Kankakee County Sheriff Mike Downey said the department was investigating the theft of stolen firearms, a ballistic vest, numerous amounts of ammunition, as well as other miscellaneous stolen items. In a press release, he said those items were found Saturday in a home in the 300 block of North Main Street in Grant Park, where Sampson was arrested.
Members of the Kankakee Area Emergency Response Team, along with sheriff’s deputies, officers from the Grant Park Police Department and investigators from the state police obtained a search warrant for the residence after Saturday’s shots fired call.
Upon executing the warrant, authorities took 18-year-old Sampson into custody and located the stolen property.
“The interagency collaboration assisted us in bringing an extremely dangerous and tense situation to a peaceful resolution in such a short time frame,” Downey said in the release.
WATSEKA — Iroquois County Sheriff Derek Hagen has announced he will retire Sept. 30.
Hagen is serving his third term as the county’s top cop, with his four-year term ending Nov. 30, 2022.
When he was sworn in for his current term on Dec. 1, 2018, Hagen said it would be his last.
“It is with mixed emotions that I will be retiring as sheriff of Iroquois County with my last day as sheriff being Sept. 30, 2021,” Hagen said in a news release earlier this week.
“I have called law enforcement my career and one of my life dreams for almost 29 years,” he said. “During that time, the Iroquois County Sheriff’s Office has been blessed with hardworking and dedicated employees who care about the citizens we serve and the communities we live in.
“I want to thank the citizens of Iroquois County for putting their faith in me and it has been an honor to serve as your sheriff for 11 years.”
The 51-year-old Hagen was first elected sheriff in 2010. He replaced the retiring Eldon Sprau.
“I have an opportunity to start a new chapter in my life with a new career,” Hagen said in the release. “I have no doubt that the employees of the Iroquois County Sheriff’s Office will continue to provide the citizens and communities with professional and capable law enforcement services.”
The Iroquois County Republican Central Committee has 60 days upon official notification of Hagen’s retirement to nominate someone to finish his term. The county board then appoints.
Hagen wants that someone to be Deputy Sheriff Clint Perzee.
“My hope is that the Iroquois County Republican Central Committee will support Clint Perzee and nominate him to the full county board for approval and appointment,” Hagen said.
Last month, Perzee announced he would be running in the June 2022 Republican primary for sheriff. He has been employed by the sheriff’s office for 24 years.
A lifelong resident of Iroquois County, Perzee graduated from Iroquois West High School in 1995 and Kankakee Community College in 1997.