COVID cases stack up

Kankakee County Health Department administrator John Bevis talks in November about the influx of positive cases, each represented by a piece of paper in the stack of the more than 3,000 the department has received in just 18 days.

Clarification: The story states that for every 100 people tested for COVID-19 infection, nearly 6 are currently considered positive for being infected.

KANKAKEE — The Kankakee County Health Department will not require its employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccination as a term of employment.

The move to mandate that the 35-employee and a 10-member contracted contact tracing workforce to receive the vaccination by Nov. 4 — the drop-dead date established by the department’s administration as part of a proposed mandate — was unanimously rejected by the board at its Thursday meeting.

The vote denying the measure was 6-0. Among the board members voting against the measure were three doctors and a nurse practitioner.

Voting against the recommended policy were board president Dr. Simon Wu, Dr. Jeff Long, Dr. Abraham Kurien and nurse practitioner Neelie Panozzo. Also voting against the measure were businessman Jim Johanek and Antonio Carrico, who is a natural health specialist with Carrico Therapy Center in Bradley as well as a Kankakee County Board member.

Health department administrator John Bevis presented a three-page staff vaccination policy that set forth the proposed rules and procedures.

From the outset of the presentation, it appeared Kankakee County Board of Health members were not leaning toward the document’s adoption. Board members almost instantly began questioning Bevis about the policy’s language as well as its ability to be enforced.

Prior to the presentation, some staff members spoke against the policy. Tammy Ponton, a health department nurse, noted that of the 13-person nursing staff, six have not been vaccinated and were not going to be vaccinated.

WORKER LOYALTY

Diane Cinnamon, a 22-year health department nurse, said the policy could seriously damage the department’s ability to function. “These are loyal people, but we [the health department] are not being loyal to them.”

Bevis was asked how many of the health department staff have been fully vaccinated. He declined to specifically state the number. He noted those who are not vaccinated are tested weekly.

Panozzo questioned why the entire staff is not tested as it is known that even people who have been vaccinated can still become infected with the virus.

Bevis simply stated the department did not feel that was necessary.

As of Thursday, some 44,894 Kankakee County residents, or 40 percent of the population, have been vaccinated. Bevis noted in the state’s Region 7 COVID district, of which Kankakee and Will counties form, the positivity rate is 5.6 percent.

That figure means for every 100 people tested, nearly 6 are currently considered positive for being infected.

Bevis noted that while Will County’s population is nearly six times the size of Kankakee’s, one of every four positive tests is coming from Kankakee County. He noted Kankakee’s positivity rate is near 9 percent.

Since the pandemic began in March 2020, there have been 248 deaths in Kankakee County associated with COVID-19.

1ST SUSPENSION, THEN FIRING

Under the proposed health department policy, unvaccinated staff would have had until Nov. 4 to submit proof of vaccination or a completed exemption form. If the staff member did not have either of those documents by that date, they would be immediately suspended without pay.

Suspended staff, as a condition of continued employment, would then be given until Nov. 15 to become fully compliant with the policy. Staff determined to be not in compliance by Nov. 16, would have been fired.

Board members questioned the need for the policy based on the fact that the department was functioning well. Bevis said as a healthcare leader, he felt it was important for the department to set an example.

Riverside Healthcare and AMITA Health St. Mary’s Hospital — who between them employ more than 4,000 area residents — recently established policies similar to this. The hospital policies state staff who are not vaccinated nor have an approved exemption by a certain date will be subject to an unpaid suspension and ultimately will lose their job.

Dr. Long noted he has growing concerns that if the hospitals lose staff due to the vaccination and the health department would lose staff, the community would be facing a medical crisis.

“We have to make sure the health department keeps going,” he said.

Bevis retorted the department also has to be considerate of the public it serves, as well as those who come into its building, so that they are not in danger of being infected by staff.

Staff members are required to wear face coverings when they are away from their desk.

The board asked Bevis how he developed the policy. He said he patterned it after policies put in place by two health departments. He said assistant state’s attorney John Coghlan, of the Kankakee County State’s Attorney’s office, reviewed the document.

Because the health department has fewer than 100 employees, board members stated the organization does not fall under the required full vaccination against COVID or proof of negative tests mandate.

After the meeting, Bevis said he was not disappointed by the board’s action.

“I think it’s important for us to set a good example. Our mission is to protect all people,” he said. “... The board of health is my boss. I respect their opinion. At least I have an answer.”

Lee Provost, an award-winning reporter, has been writing local news stories for The Daily Journal since 1988. He is a lifelong resident of the region. Provost can be reached at lprovost@daily-journal.com.