With Illinois hospitals once again becoming overwhelmed caring for unvaccinated COVID-19 patients and students returning to school, Gov. JB Pritzker as expected on Thursday issued a vaccine mandate for all public and private school and university employees, as well as people who work in health care settings.
He also announced a statewide mask mandate for indoor public spaces for anyone aged 2 and older, starting Monday.
The governor’s order expands coronavirus restrictions across the state that some local municipalities like Chicago had already ordered in recent weeks.
The vaccine mandate allows teachers, school and university staff, and health care workers the option of foregoing a shot if they instead agree to get COVID-19 tests at least once a week. The frequency of testing could increase during outbreaks, Pritzker said at a Thursday morning press conference. People subject to the mandate need to get their first shot by Sept. 5 and a second dose within 30 days of the first.
Hospitals are becoming overrun with unvaccinated patients
The governor’s move is necessary, he said, even though nearly 76% of the state’s population has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Hospital administrators once again are raising concerns that they won’t have enough staff to care for the sheer number of COVID-19 patients, let alone non-COVID patients.
Intensive care unit space has been filling up in under-vaccinated regions downstate, where the more-contagious delta variant is spreading quickly. In Illinois’ southernmost region, for example, in counties where vaccination rates remain well below 50%, just six intensive care beds are open as of Thursday, according to state data.
“To put it bluntly, because of the delta variant, hospitals are again fighting the battle that we had hoped would be behind us by now,” Pritzker said Thursday.
Chicago health officials, however, say the area isn’t facing the same hospital capacity issues seen elsewhere, saying they’re not of “great concern.” About 85% of the city’s available ICU beds are in use, according to a statement from the Chicago Department of Public Health, but officials say that’s mostly from non-COVID-19 cases. Bed availability isn’t a fixed number, CDPH noted, with hospitals having the ability to add and subtract as needs arise.
Still, all but one of Illinois’ 102 counties are experiencing a high transmission rate for the coronavirus, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
To slow the virus’s spread and avoid hospitals from once again being overrun with patients at a time when the state faces precarious health care staffing levels, Pritzker said he’s reinstituting the statewide mask mandate and encouraging those who remain unvaccinated to get the shot.
Between January and July, he said, 96% of hospitalizations were among unvaccinated people and 95% of the deaths in Illinois due to COVID-19 have been among unvaccinated people.
“This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Pritzker said. “These are preventable deaths.”
Last Friday, state public health authorities reported 24,682 new cases for the previous week, including 126 additional deaths related to COVID-19. The surge of new cases is reminiscent of a previous surge in cases in April. But it remains to be seen whether hospitalizations and deaths will rise as high as the biggest surge at the end of 2020, when the state saw upwards of 10,000 cases and more than 100 deaths each day.
“Vaccination remains our strongest tool to protect ourselves and our loved ones, to restore post-pandemic life to our communities, and most crucially, to maintain our healthcare system’s ability to care for anyone who walks through their doors that needs help,” Pritzker said. “I’m sure that if people understood that being unvaccinated could take a hospital bed from an accident victim, they might go get vaccinated.”
Mask mandate for indoor public locations
In announcing the new mask mandate, Pritzker also dismissed taking further immediate action such as bringing capacity limits back for restaurants, bars, gyms or other public locations. But, he left that option open if hospitals become more overrun with COVID-19 patients.
“I wouldn’t hope or anticipate that we would go back to something like that,” Pritzker said. “But we all know when these numbers get to a place where it gets out of control or it’s at a place we truly can’t treat people in hospitals, you have to take further steps. I don’t anticipate that we’ll get there and that’s not something that’s currently on the table.”
The Illinois Retail Merchants Association, which represents 23,000 stores in the state, issued a statement in support of a return of a mask mandate for customers and employees. The organization also cautioned against another hallmark of the original mask mandate: unruly customers who angrily or violently confront retail staff who attempt to enforce the masking rules.
“We ask all customers to abide by this public health order in a respectful manner,” CEO Rob Karr said in a statement. “We strongly encourage local law enforcement agencies to promptly assist us in ensuring employees are not subjected to verbal and physical abuse as we have seen in the past and call on local health departments to enforce this order in uniform fashion.”
Last August, Pritzker won a ruling from a state panel that allowed fines for businesses that don’t comply with mask mandates, up to $2,500. But those rules still require the cooperation of local officials to enforce, which is not a guarantee in all counties of the state.
Vaccine mandates for teachers, health care workers
In calling on teachers, school employees and health care workers to get the vaccine, Pritzker also called on private employers to enact a mandate for their workers.
Some labor unions — most emphatically those representing police officers — have resisted vaccine mandates. But the Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the two statewide teacher unions, on Thursday issued statements welcoming the governor’s new vaccine mandate.
“The surge of COVID-19 cases in our state reminds us that this vaccine mandate is a public health imperative,” the unions wrote in a joint statement. “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.”
“Here is the truth: Vaccines work. Vaccines are safe. And vaccines save lives. The action taken today by Governor 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.”
Nationally, a push for vaccine mandates in schools is growing. Earlier this month, the nation’s largest teachers union came out in favor of staff vaccination requirements as long as there are exemptions and weekly testing is an alternative. The nation’s other major teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, isn’t endorsing vaccine mandates but passed a resolution saying workers should negotiate potential mandates with their employers. Both unions are encouraging vaccinations and say 80% to 90% of their members are inoculated against COVID-19.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona also recently said he supports vaccination mandates for school staff made at the state and local level.
Earlier this month, Chicago Public Schools announced a vaccine mandate for staff and said that if they don’t comply they will be ineligible to work. CPS will allow for religious and medical exceptions.
The state of California and the New York City school district also have vaccine mandates, but, like Illinois, will allow staff not to get vaccinated and instead get weekly COVID-19 testing.
For higher education, Pritzker’s mandate covers both employees and students. Many public and private schools across Illinois already have instituted their own vaccination requirements, including the three University of Illinois campuses, Loyola and the University of Chicago.
Pritzker already has required everyone in schools to wear a mask. A handful of districts that have refused to comply face decertification from the state Board of Education. He also mandated state employees who work in congregate settings, such as prisons and veterans’ homes, receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
The state’s largest government employee union, AFSCME, continues to bargain with the governor over the issue while pushing for alternatives to mandatory vaccines for its members, such as regular testing. A union spokesman on Wednesday referred to such mandates as a “rigid, universal and punitive approach.”
Pritzker’s Thursday announcement for teachers, however, prompted a less contentious tone from AFSCME.
“In discussions around vaccine requirements with the state and other employers, we have urged exactly the kind of flexible, vaccinate-or-test requirement that Gov. Pritzker and teacher unions are announcing for Illinois teachers today,” AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall said in a statement. “The Pritzker Administration should now work collaboratively with our union to develop a similar flexible approach for state employees.”
State public health data currently show five COVID-19 outbreaks at schools in Cook and four downstate counties. For the week ending Aug. 14, the state logged 2,354 cases of COVID-19 among those between the ages of 12 and 17. Nearly 2,200 cases were reported for those between 5 and 11.
In both age groupings, those totals represent the highest weekly amount since January, state data show.
Education editor Kate Grossman contributed.
Tony Arnold covers state politics for WBEZ. Follow @tonyjarnold.