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‘This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated’: Pritzker announces new mandates to save lives in Illinois

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Gov. JB Pritzker is reinstating the statewide indoor mask mandate starting Monday. Vaccines will be required for all P-12 teachers and staff, higher education personnel and students, and health care workers in Illinois starting September 5.

Pritzker stressed this is now a pandemic of the unvaccinated. The governor said his administration had to put the new mandates in place to prevent more deaths.

“I’m sure that if people understood that being unvaccinated could take a hospital bed from an accident victim, they might go get vaccinated. Unfortunately, we are running out of time as our hospitals run out of beds,” said Pritzker.

The Pritzker administration says unvaccinated healthcare workers in hospitals and nursing homes have driven the majority of breakthrough COVID-19 hospitalizations in Illinois. The governor said those workers have impacted many elderly and immunocompromised people.

“If you’re unvaccinated, you’re getting the people in your care sick,” Pritzker said Thursday. “It’s one reason they’ll likely need booster shots and it’s why I’m instituting this vaccine requirement.”

However, the vaccine mandate also applies to P-12 educators and staff. All higher ed personnel and students must also follow the mandate. If people choose not to get the vaccine, they must go through at least one COVID-19 test each week.

IEA and IFT support vaccine mandate

The Illinois Education Association and Illinois Federation of Teachers support Pritzker’s announcement. IFT President Dan Montgomery and IEA President Kathi Griffin released a joint statement Thursday morning.

“The surge of COVID-19 cases in our state reminds us that this vaccine mandate is a public health imperative,” they wrote. “To implement it properly, widespread education and access to vaccines will be essential. For members who cannot, or will not, get vaccinated, we are glad to see the governor has implemented weekly COVID testing.”

Both education leaders noted they’ll help locals work on the terms and implementation of the vaccine mandate. They also emphasized the critical role educators have in helping the public understand facts over misinformation about vaccines.

“Here is the truth: Vaccines work. Vaccines are safe. And vaccines save lives,” they stated. “The action taken today by Gov. Pritzker is what we need so our school year can continue in person.  It’s the best course of action for the education of our state’s youth.”

Dr. Ngozi Ezike also gave a grim picture of where Illinois stands in terms of hospital capacity. Many people have noticed the recent rise in cases of the delta variant. Still, they may not realize how big the jump was.

“The number of people in Illinois ICUs with COVID is seven times higher than it was at our low point this summer, just on July 7,” said Ezike.

Mask mandate back to prevent deaths

The Illinois Public Health Director noted Region 5 in Southern Illinois could run out of ICU beds as soon as Friday. Region 4 covering the Metro East could be out of staffed intensive care beds next week. Ezike also said Regions 3 and 6 covering Western and Eastern parts of Illinois could have no beds left by mid-September.

That’s why the administration is bringing back the statewide indoor mask mandate on Monday. Retailers support the decision to keep customers safe. Although, they hope this mandate will have better enforcement than last year.

“It’s gonna take a consistent and cooperative approach by businesses, law enforcement, and local health departments. It’s everyone working together in that regard,” said Rob Karr, President of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. “I don’t think we need to browbeat people. I think we need to just educate and inform them.”

Karr knows no one enjoys constantly wearing masks. Some may feel they should be exempt from the mandate if they’re fully vaccinated. Yet, that’s not the case this year.

“It is something of a rub to put that mask back on right? But there’s people getting breakthrough cases too,” Karr said. “Until we can get a greater portion of the population to consult with their healthcare provider and do what’s appropriate, then we have to do these types of things.”

Defining public service during a pandemic

Democratic state leaders are applauding the governor for this announcement. However, Republicans argue Pritzker must stop acting alone and let lawmakers engage in these decisions.

“If you’re an elected leader from one of those highly affected communities and you’re spending your time resisting masks instead of working to get your people vaccinated, then your definition of public service looks a whole lot different than mine,” said Pritzker.

The governor was likely directing that statement towards outspoken downstate lawmakers and local leaders who frequently defy his orders.

Meanwhile, Pritzker called House Republican Leader Jim Durkin Wednesday night to talk about ways to control the spread of the delta variant. News of the mandates shocked Durkin as he received an update minutes after the phone call ended. He sent a letter to Pritzker Thursday morning demanding the governor listen to lawmakers and residents impacted by his decisions.

“Please make your experts available to the General Assembly so that we can examine their data and plans, review the results of your many previous mandates, and together plot a course of action that will work. You have the authority to call for a Special Session of both Chambers to address this very critical issue,” Durkin said. “And I am imploring you to do so immediately.”

Pritzker responded to that letter Thursday afternoon. The governor thanked Durkin for giving suggestions during their phone call and touched upon masking in schools.

“I appreciate your request to additionally furnish KN95 masks to schools,” Pritzker said. “My administration will immediately reach out to superintendents to inform them that KN95 masks are available at their request through our normal PPE distribution channels.”

Pritzker also reiterated he will do everything in his authority to keep residents safe by following recommendations from doctors. He also encouraged Durkin and other Republicans to bring their ideas forward to help save lives and end the pandemic.

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Mike Miletich

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