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Pritzker To Announce Reinstated Mask Mandate; Required Vaccines For All Teachers

Gov. JB Pritzker on Thursday morning will announce a reinstated mask mandate for all Illinoisans aged two and over in public indoor settings, in addition to making Illinois the seventh state in the nation to require teachers get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Pritzker has been reticent in publicly stating what metrics he’d use to decide when to reinstate more COVID-related restrictions or mandates as the coronavirus’ more transmissible Delta variant spreads — especially through Illinois’ unvaccinated population. But on Wednesday he said his office is focused on the same basic constraint that’s been at issue since the beginning of the pandemic: avoiding overwhelming Illinois’ healthcare system.

“A lot of the decisions that we’ve had to make about increasing our mitigations have been about making sure that we’re keeping everybody across the state safe, but especially making sure that our hospitals are not overrun,” Pritzker told reporters at an unrelated news conference.

Pritzker’s new orders come as the number of COVID patients occupying hospital beds statewide — including in ICU beds and on ventilators — threatens to surpass the peak reached this spring, when far fewer Illinoisans were vaccinated but some mitigations like capacity limits were lifted.

Overnight on Monday, hospitals in southern Illinois reported there was only one ICU bed available in the entire 20-county region. The latest available data from 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday showed a slight improvement, with six ICU beds free, though Pritzker said Wednesday the state has had to coordinate extra staffing help for hospitals to ensure patients won’t be turned away.

Southern Illinois currently has the highest seven-day average COVID test positivity rate of any region in the state.

States like Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama have completely run out of ICU beds this week, and Pritzker on Tuesday said he wouldn’t hesitate to impose “significantly greater mitigations” on Illinois if the state began running short on ICU or even regular hospital beds, though he declined to specify what those restrictions may be.

Illinois’ upswing in new cases fueled by the Delta variant’s rise began in early July, with a corresponding increase in COVID hospitalizations following a couple weeks later. The number of Illinoisans dying of COVID has also accelerated recently; the 40 deaths reported by the Illinois Department of Public Health on Wednesday is a stark example of fatalities becoming the ultimate lagging indicator of the virus’ spread.

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Earlier this month, Pritzker announced all students, faculty and staff at pre-K through 12th grade schools would be required to wear masks when classes began in mid- to late August. The mandate applies to both public and private schools, with harsh consequences for non-compliance.

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Read more: Pritzker Mandates Masks In Schools Ahead Of New Academic Year, Requires Vaccines For Frontline State Workers

Since then, the governors of at least eight other states — California, Connecticut, Hawaii, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon and Washington — in addition to leaders of large urban school districts like Chicago Public Schools, have announced some form of vaccine mandates for teachers and staff.

Illinois will follow, with a provision that allows teachers who are either medically unable to get vaccinated or refuse the shots to instead submit to twice-weekly COVID testing. The University of Illinois’ SHIELD saliva-based COVID tests have been made available to all Illinois school districts via federal funding, and more than 1,200 individual schools have opted into the program, according to the U of I. The schools are mostly concentrated in the Chicago area and surrounding suburban and exurban counties.

Illinois’ two statewide teachers unions are supportive of Pritzker’s vaccine mandate, according to the Sun-Times — a contrast to the reactions of other unions whose members will also be subject to vaccine requirements. On Wednesday, for example, Chicago Fraternal Order of Police union President John Catanzara compared a forthcoming vaccine mandate for the city’s police force to Nazi Germany.

The number of Illinoisans getting their COVID shots saw a brief bump in the first half of August as the Delta variant’s rapid spread dominated headlines. Though the rise in vaccinations was short-lived, officials hope the federal Food and Drug Administration’s move this week to give full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID vaccine will motivate those who were hesitant to get jabbed while the vaccine was designated OK for emergency use authorization.

Earlier this summer, many colleges and universities in Illinois announced vaccinations would be mandatory for students or employees, or both. SHIELD testing has been implemented at 31 higher education institutions across Illinois, including community colleges, according to U of I.

Mask mandate non-compliance

As of this week, the Illinois State Board of Education has placed approximately four dozen public school districts on probation for defying Pritzker’s mask order, which includes the loss of state funding and the inability to compete in sports.

The consequences for non-public schools are even more dire. In addition to being blocked from competing in sports, approximately 10 private schools that began the year without heeding Pritzker’s mask mandate have been stripped of their recognition status by the state Board of Education, which includes being blocked from sports competitions, getting cut off from state scholarship money and graduating seniors not having their high school diplomas acknowledged by the state.

A handful of both public and private schools have reversed course in the face of those punishments and have seen their standing restored by the Board of Education. Meanwhile, at least one lawsuit challenging Pritzker’s mask mandate is making its way through the courts.

Read more: First Lawsuit Filed Over Pritzker's School Mask Mandate

At the same time Pritzker announced the school mask mandate in early August, the governor also announced a COVID vaccine mandate for frontline state workers. The order applies to state employees who work in congregate care facilities like prisons, veterans homes and state-run mental hospitals.

To illustrate the need for vaccine mandates in that population of state workers, Pritzker cited extremely high rates of vaccination for residents in Illinois’ four veterans’ homes, contrasted with low rates of vaccine uptakes for staff members. Frontline state workers were given an Oct. 4 deadline to get their COVID shots.

“They run the risk of carrying the virus into work with them, and then it’s the residents who are ending up seriously sick, hospitalized or worse,” Pritzker said of unvaccinated frontline state employees earlier this month. “It’s a breach of safety, it’s fundamentally wrong and in Illinois, it’s going to stop.”

Illinois’ largest public employee union pushed back on the order, objecting to “any effort to define [frontline state workers] as part of the problem rather than recognizing their dedication,” AFSCME Council 31 President Roberta Lynch fired back in response.

Pritzker on Wednesday said his administration is working with the union, but earlier this month said he wouldn’t back down on the strict mandate for frontline state employees and wasn’t interested in modeling his orders on President Joe Biden’s vaccine requirement for all federal workers and contractors, which includes the ability to submit to regular COVID testing instead.

Copyright 2021 NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS. To see more, visit NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS.