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Report for America is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.

Complex Factors Complicate County Level COVID-19 Prevention Efforts

Midway Village Museum
a 1917 snapshot of nurses at Camp Grant

Some Illinois counties have lower pandemic death tolls than others. Part of the differences come from demographics. And just like on the national scene, Illinois results depend a lot on prevention efforts.

Winnebago County and Champaign County both have a mix of urban and rural populations. Winnebago County has nearly a third more COVID-19 cases than Champaign County, and six times the number of deaths.

Credit Champaign County

Winnebago County does have more people than Champaign County, but the difference is not nearly enough toexplain the disparity.

Access To Research

Julie Pryde is the public health administrator for the Champaign-Urbana public health district. She said key factors in prevention include wearing masks and constant communication with residents and business owners.

Pryde said residents must also trust what government officials tell them for prevention efforts to be successful. Otherwise, misinformation spreads like…well…the virus itself.   

“We just need to work around it and keep pushing out the correct information,” she explained. “Keep telling the truth. And our agency has been around since 1937. So, we have a history of telling the truth to our community. So, we've got that going for us.”

Pryde said her department’s access to scientists at the University of Illinois helps enforcement. Scientists there created ventilator technology, hand sanitizers anda new rapid coronavirus test. The U of I won’t even let students into campus buildings without a mask and a recent negative test. These things help create a common community approach.

Winnebago County's Mitigation Tensions

Meanwhile, there’s a growing divide in Winnebago County about the best way to approach mitigation efforts.

Credit Winnebago County

Dr. Sandra Martell, Winnebago County’s public health administrator, said in a September press conference that her office received over 500 complaints about people not wearing masks since the start of the “Restore Illinois” Phase 4.

“It is our commitment to the public who has made the complaint to see that we are following through on enforcement," she said. 

There is also a difference between Winnebago County and Champaign County, in which leaders people trust. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won Champaign County big over Donald Trump. In Winnebago there was almost no difference in votes between the two.

The non-partisan Pew Center said its research shows Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are about twice as likely as Republicans and Republican-leaners to say people should always wear masks. Pew also said Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to say that masks should rarely or never be worn.

“I've got Republican friends that are concerned and wear the masks. I've got Republican friends that aren’t concerned and don't do a good job wearing them. And I've got Democrats that are friends that wear them and Democrats that don't,” said Loves Park Mayor Greg Jury.

He said he’s heard the notion that wearing a mask is driven by politics, but he said from what he’s seen in his circle, that just isn’t the case.

Winnebago County’s Republican Sheriff Gary Caruana doesn’t dispute the effectiveness of masks but does take issue with some of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s mandates. He dismissed the governor’s stay-at-home order in the spring.

“Sometimes people get mad and they get emotional and then, bam, we're on social media and they're going ‘I don't support this or I don't support you and shame on you or whatever.’ And it's like, ‘Hang on,’ let's really break this down and find out what really is your right that you don't really want to give up,” Caruana said in May.

Caruana hasn’t changed since then. He recently told a packed crowd of business owners he won’t enforce measures temporarily banning indoor dining in Illinois Region 1.

Michael Leifheit is the owner of the Irish Rose Saloon in Rockford. He's been a Rockford business owner for over 38 years. He was at the meeting and continued with indoor dining after Pritzker’s mandate. He said he doesn’t understand why Region 1 restaurants shouldn’t offer this. He explained that he doesn’t believe things are being done by the law.

“And that's why I, like a lot of other people, chose to disregard it. We're not bad people,” he explained. “We're people who have our entire life savings and everything invested in our businesses. And what you will see -- if this, if we're shut down, is that all the local businesses will go broke. And the only thing you'll have left is Burger King, and you know, the big companies that can survive it.”

Loves Park Mayor Greg Jury said he doesn’t agree with governor’s decision.

“And this is the frustrating thing for our restaurants and bar owners. They were open all in July, and all of August and the numbers were down. They were below that,” he said. “They kept saying the numbers are probably going to spike when school goes. So, the numbers spike, and then close the restaurants and bars.”

He said he doesn’t have a lot of confidence that the indoor dining ban will lower the positivity rate.

Mask Psychology

Credit Midway Village Museum
Table of cases in local schools from Oct. 30, 1918 Rockford Daily Register Gazette

State public health director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said those with different opinions about masks and other prevention efforts should not look at each other as rivals.

“There is a common enemy, that enemy is the virus, and we need to be united in our efforts to fight against this deadly virus,” Ezike stated.

Brad Sagarin is a professor of social and evolutionary psychology at Northern Illinois University. His research includes social influence, resistance to persuasion and deception. He said a leader’s credibility is critical.  

“Because the public is smart. I mean, that public can look around and see what's going on,” he assured. “And I think that a leader who is straightforward and up-front with the public, is going to have a greater likelihood of being believed and having their recommendations followed.”

But he said there’s a very real layer of peer pressure over keeping a mask on.

“One of the places that we as human beings look for information, especially if ambiguous situations,  is we look to our peers,” Sagarin explained. “'what are other people around us doing?' If I walk into a store, and everybody around me is wearing a mask, and I'm not wearing a mask, I'm going to feel really uncomfortable.”

That’s where the U of I has had to get tougher with its younger populations. The university advised undergraduate students to significantly decrease in-person activities after a spike in positive cases at the start of the school year. It seems to be working.

Champaign County public health administrator Julie Pryde said consistent prevention remains an uphill battle in all places.

“It's unfortunate that the same message isn't getting out, you know, everywhere because it is killing people.”

That includes nearly9,000 dead in Illinois.

This story was produced in collaboration with the Rockford Register Star, with additional support from the Solutions Journalism Network.

  • Yvonne Boose is a 2020 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.



Yvonne covers artistic, cultural, and spiritual expressions in the COVID-19 era. This could include how members of community cultural groups are finding creative and innovative ways to enrich their personal lives through these expressions individually and within the context of their larger communities. Boose is a recent graduate of the Illinois Media School and returns to journalism after a career in the corporate world.
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