By Dorothy Tucker, Christopher Hacker, Carol Thompson and Samah Assad

 

KANKAKEE, IL (CBS) — The pastor stood outside the hospital, his eyes closed, his arms outstretched. Soft guitar and keyboard music played as the crowd gathered around him, their hands extended toward the second story window.

“We’re asking you, God, that you would do miraculous work,” the pastor said.

Behind that window, Mike Lawrence, a 63-year-old boy’s basketball coach at Kankakee Trinity Academy, struggled to fight the coronavirus. He’d been there 20 days and suffered a collapsed lung.

“We just don’t want him to leave yet,” said Brad Prairie, the principal at Kankakee Trinity Academy and one of the several dozen who gathered to pray for “Coach Mike.” “We don’t want his days to be done, and we’re just believing that God’s going to raise him back up.”

In Kankakee County, with a population of just over 111,000 residents, one in every 12 people has now tested positive for the virus since the pandemic started — on pace with much larger areas like Cook County, which bore the brunt of the first wave of COVID-19.

Now, more than nine months after that first wave, smaller rural areas like Kankakee are seeing their own surge.

Perry Irvin is that one Kankakee resident in every twelve who’s suffered the virus’ effects. In early November, just a week after he’d tested positive for COVID-19, he was getting sicker by the day.

“On the way to the hospital, I prayed and had a conversation with my wife,” Irvin said. “I said to her, ‘if I don’t make it back home from this, you know, know that I love you and the family and I want you all to be okay. Don’t waste a lot of time regressing your life. Live your life.”

At the hospital, Irvin said, doctors realized they had to act fast to save him.

“I remember laying there, in like a ball, gasping for air,” Irvin said. “I felt a touch on my shoulder and it was my doctor and my son standing there.”

The doctor and Irvin’s son — himself a nursing supervisor at the hospital — told him his blood oxygen level dropped to below 70 percent — perilously far below the normal range of 95 to 100 percent.

The hospital staff put Irvin on a ventilator, inserting a tube directly into his windpipe to breathe for him when his lungs couldn’t. He remained intubated for six days before his condition finally improved enough for him to breathe on his own. But his struggle didn’t end there.

“When I  first came off the machine, I couldn’t walk,” Irvin said. “I couldn’t even pick up a spoon to feed myself or to do anything like that. And the worst of it was the nights. You’re laying there, you can’t move, and all you can do is maybe get to the line to press the button and the nurses will come in.”

Since October, hundreds of people in rural Illinois have suffered just like Irvin as the numbers of cases and deaths there have soared.

Cook County, with a population of more than 5 million, had by far the most cases relative to its population for the first few months of the pandemic. But this fall, counties with less familiar names — and with populations orders of magnitude smaller — began to overtake those areas.

At the beginning of October, Kankakee County was reporting an average of about 12 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents in the county every day — about the same as in Cook County, where that figure was just under 13.

CBS 2 analyzed data from the Illinois Department of Public Health between October 1 and December 9. Based on population, we found Kankakee is one of the ten counties with the biggest increases in the state.

By mid-November, just before Thanksgiving, Cook County had jumped to an average of more than 78 new cases per 100,000 residents. But Kankakee far exceeded that, skyrocketing to an average of more than 155 new cases per 100,000 people.

Other, even smaller, counties are in similar situations.

Iroquois County, which borders Kankakee to the south, saw its daily case numbers increase by a staggering 3,000 percent in less than two months.

Dee Trumble is a lifelong resident of Gilman, a tiny town in Iroquois home to 1,600.

There, despite Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker’s mandate that banned indoor dining to try to slow the pandemic’s exponential surge, patrons were seen sitting inside a Mexican restaurant in the center of town. Many weren’t wearing masks.

Trumble blames the rise in cases in Gilman on “COVID fatigue.”

“At the beginning, people did what they needed to do,” Trumble said. “They just stayed in. Now people are getting a little tired, just like in the cities so there’s been weddings, there’s been parties … There’s parent’s who felt their kids were deprived because they didn’t have a homecoming so they rented a place.”

In Gilman’s main grocery store, which Trumble owns, masks are required. But Trumble doesn’t wear one inside her office and doesn’t enforce the rule for customers.

“I’m not going to have my 16 or 17-year-old employee go up and say ‘hey, you’ve got to put a mask on,'” Trumble said. “Because in today’s day and age … we live out here in the country, people carry guns on their gun racks because they’re hunters. I’m not going to have one of my kids get confronted.”

Trumble said that fatigue didn’t happen overnight. Instead, it was borne out of frustration with what many there saw as draconian mitigation measures that hurt rural Illinois.

“At the beginning of the COVID … a lot of people were saying ‘it’s a Chicago problem, it wasn’t ours,'” said RaeAnn Tucker, director of Health Promotion with the Henry and Stark County Health Department.

Those two counties, which share both a border and a health department, have a combined population of less than 55,000. By early December, they’d had a total of about 3,400 cases. One in about 16 residents had tested positive.

The Muckrock COVID-19 project provided CBS2 with historical zip code level case data used in conjunction with current IDPH data to determine the counties most impacted by COVID19. That data shows some of the biggest spikes happened not near Chicago, but further downstate.

​The rapid rise in cases presents a new reality for Tucker. In her hospital region — an area delineated by the Illinois Department of Public Health to track the availability of medical services — more than 80 percent of intensive care beds are occupied.

“So it’s not just a big city problem,” Tucker said. “It’s made its way to small town USA and small town Illinois.”

And in a small town, the pandemic’s impact can be devastating. Consider what happened in Lawrence County, a small southern Illinois county of about 17,000 on the Indiana border, when one of the county’s only two nursing homes was hit by the virus.

Up until October 1st, there had been no COVID-19-related deaths at the United Methodist Village nursing home. Since then, at least 45 of the 48 residents got the virus, and 13 died.

“Once it gets into a congregate setting, it’s very hard to control,” said Amy Marley, the Public Health Administrator of the Lawrence County Health Department.

Marley agreed that part of what’s driving the surge in her area is “COVID fatigue.” In the case of the United Methodist Village nursing home, she said it was largely younger people who worked at the facility as aides — people more likely to have COVID-19 and be asymptomatic — who brought the virus in.

“I’ve had a lot of reluctance to the mask wearing with community members,” Marley said. “They feel that it is an infringement upon their civil rights. The messaging has been unclear, so we’re constantly trying to find new ways to make them understand that it’s important to protect others.”

To make matters worse, the virus crippled the Lawrence school district in November.

Aside from a small outbreak at the district’s elementary school in the second week of the school year, the district’s superintendent, Doug Daugherty, said the year had been going smoothly. Until the November, that is.

“We ended up with 120 kids being quarantined in one week, that was our highest, and that was right after Halloween,” Daugherty said.

The school year became a game of musical chairs, with teachers coming in and out of the classroom after being exposed. A teacher would have contact with a positive student, quarantine for 10 days, then return to class only to be exposed — and forced to quarantine — yet again.

“We’ve had one teacher that’s been hit that way three times, so she’s had to be out 30 days for quarantine,” Daugherty said. “She’s yet to be positive which we’re thankful for, but yet she’s missed a total of 30 days this first semester because of close contact.”

Daugherty said it’s taken a toll on the district’s ability to function.

“We’ve had over 500 days that our staff has missed because of COVID-related reasons,” Daugherty said.

Staff shortages like that are what’s driven officials in Edgar County, also on the Indiana border north of Lawrence County, to take drastic measures.

“We don’t have enough staff,” said Monica Dunn, Assistant Administrator for the Edgar County Public Health Department. “We cannot keep up with the number of cases that are rolling into our department today. We are already having to work seven days a week. We often work 14-hour days. that’s a rough pace.”

Every time her department learns of a new positive case, her team completes a “case investigation,” trying to identify where the person got the virus and reach anyone they might’ve been in contact with.

“That’s not only the contact tracers,” Dunn said. “We have a dental clinic, so we’ve had to train our dental staff to do contact tracing, to make phone calls, to monitor cases and help us with case investigations.”

That’s the same kind of pace found in hospitals across rural Illinois. There aren’t many facilities that can handle the most serious cases, and ICU beds are limited.

AMITA Health St. Mary’s Hospital in Kankakee added 15 isolation rooms this Spring. They were empty until last month, hospital officials said.

“Now they’re all being used,” said the hospital’s chief medical officer, Dr. Kalisha Hill, on December 7.

During the week leading up to October 23, St. Mary’s had an average of about 11 total Covid cases, and an average of about six in its ICU, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. By November 27, there were 28 cases hospitalized, and 10 in ICU.

Coach Mike Lawrence was in one of those beds as a crowd of his students and colleagues gathered outside the hospital to pray for him. As they stood in the parking lot, one of them got Lawrence on the phone.

“I just want to say ‘thank you,'” Lawrence said. “I am not deserving. I appreciate all you. Guys, girls, I appreciate your thoughts. Appreciate as you go out and show your love for me and my family. And I believe this stuff’s no fun.”

Last weekend, Lawrence finally left the hospital, led out in a wheelchair by a nurse, to cheers from hospital staff and loved ones.

In Kankakee County’s hospital region, which includes Grundy, Will and part of south-suburban Cook County, 84 percent of ICU beds are full, according to IDPH.

And with more than 3 million travelers boarding flights for Thanksgiving, officials fear those figures could worsen.

Perry Irvin knows firsthand what that could mean. Back at home and grateful he recovered, he’s encouraging others to do what’s necessary.

“If it can help one person or save one life,” Irvin said. “I’m just saying, take it seriously because it’s real. It’s as real as anything as I’ve ever experienced in my life.”