KANKAKEE – After a year and two months of vaccinations, Kankakee County has crossed a threshold – more residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 than unvaccinated.
The county becoming 50% vaccinated — officially Wednesday, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health — comes months after the COVID-19 vaccination rollout slowed to “a creep and a crawl,” according to the Kankakee County Health Department Administrator John Bevis. Illinois is 63.59% fully vaccinated overall.
“I feel good that we’re finally at 50%,” Bevis said.
“It just goes to show that half the county is still at risk, if they get COVID, of becoming potentially seriously ill and unfortunately maybe some of those people still die,” he continued. “But you know, it took a long time to come. I thought we would have arrived earlier.
Local hospital leaders, who were instrumental in rolling out the vaccine, agreed.
“We are happy to see the vaccination rate continue to climb, but frankly, the climb has been so slow,” said Phil Kambic, president and CEO of Riverside Healthcare.
“We’ve worked hard to get here over the past year, and I hope everyone can recognize the dedication it took,” said Dr. Kalisha Hill, Regional Chief Medical Officer for AMITA Health St. Mary’s Hospital Kankakee and St. Joseph Medical Center Joliet. “Honestly, I had hoped we would have reached this milestone sooner, but we have learned to be grateful for all the successes, big and small, during this pandemic.”
The percentage of fully immunized individuals in the county increased from 48.2% on January 20 to 50.04% on February 24. There are now more than 55,000 fully vaccinated people in a county of about 110,000 people, according to IDPH.
“It has a significant impact on the health of the community. The most recent push really showed that clearly,” Kambic said. “The sickest people we had in hospital and intensive care were those who had not received the vaccine. And the breakthrough cases that we’ve seen weren’t as severe for the vaccinated people.
Around the same time, there were 1,742 COVID-19 positive cases, bringing the total cases since the start of the pandemic to 28,464. There were 18 deaths between January 20 and February 16. The total number of COVID deaths is 355.
Bevis said case counts at the start of this week averaged 13 new cases per day, while a month ago the county averaged more than 200 daily cases.
It’s also the first time in months that Kankakee County is no longer in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “high transmission” or coronavirus red category, which labels areas seeing more than 100 new cases for 100,000 people per week. The county is now in the “substantial” orange category of 50 to 99 cases. It’s a ranking the county last experienced in late summer 2021. Bevis said the county could fall into the “moderate” category.
The seven-day rolling average of COVID positivity in Region 7, which includes Kankakee and Will counties, has declined significantly from 15.2% to 3.3% over the past month. The positivity rate in Kankakee County dropped from 15.2% to 2.9%.
Through the ups and downs of COVID over the past year, a vaccination campaign has continued at the health department and medical facilities.
KCHD continues to recommend that all people get vaccinated and given the booster, wear masks indoors to help reduce the spread of the virus and its variants, socially distance where possible, to get tested when sick, to stay home when sick, and to maintain safe health practices, including diet, exercise, and routine health checkups.
With the vaccine readily available since last spring, why has it taken so far to reach 50%?
“I think a lot of it is misinformation spread on social media,” Bevis said. “I think it’s partly political. I think it’s partly a personal preference, which is everyone’s right.
He acknowledged that government mistrust and hesitation play a role, and that other counties are in a similar position.
The county’s white and Hispanic/Latino populations are both 48% fully vaccinated, according to Bevis. The black population is 40% fully vaccinated.
The youngest vaccine-eligible groups and large subsets of the population, children ages 5-11 and 12-17, are 14.62% and 36.75% fully vaccinated, respectively, according to IDPH . Bevis said parents might be hesitant because the vaccine was only approved for those age groups more recently.
“We understand this can be a difficult decision for some and we don’t take this lightly,” Hill said. “But get all the facts from a trusted source, such as your healthcare provider, and make an informed choice for you and your family.”
Bevis said recall participation remains relatively low, although it provides renewed protection against new variants.
KCHD offers walk-in or scheduled COVID-19 vaccinations from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and provides new information about vaccinations on its social media channels. Riverside will continue to make the vaccine available in doctors’ offices and immediate care settings.