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Pritzker Reinstates Mask Mandate, Requires Vaccines For All Educators, College Students

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Illinois is the latest in a growing list of states that will require teachers and school staff to get vaccinated against COVID-19, Gov. JB Pritzker announced Thursday morning, along with the reinstatement of a mask mandate for all Illinoisans age two and over congregating in indoor public spaces beginning Monday.

The school vaccine mandate covers both public and private schools and also extends to both employees and students in colleges and universities. Additionally, vaccines will be required for all healthcare workers in Illinois, including staff in privately run nursing homes.

Pritzker on Thursday framed the extended mask mandate and new vaccine requirements as the only way to prevent hospitals from getting overrun and protect healthcare workers from further burnout as the coronavirus' more transmissible Delta variant fuels another wave of the pandemic.

“They’ve spent 18 months on the frontlines fighting this virus," Pritzker said. "The tool to bring an end to the pandemic — vaccines — is readily available, but your neighbors aren’t taking it. Many because they’re being misled.”

Illinois Department of Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike echoed that statement, saying mandated vaccines for teachers and staff as well as requiring masks for everyone is the "best bet" for keeping kids in school this year.

"The bottom line is masks are effective vaccines are effective, but until more people are vaccinated, we need to take the steps to protect our healthcare workers.”

Vaccine mandate in educational settings, nursing homes

Democratic 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 also announced some form of vaccine mandates for teachers and staff in the last two weeks.

Illinois will follow, with healthcare workers, education employees and college students facing a Sept. 5 deadline to get their first vaccine dose. Those who still decline to get their COVID shots will instead be required to get tested at least once per week.

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.

Earlier this summer, a handful of 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.

Illinois' two statewide teachers unions support Pritzker's vaccine requirement "as part of a layered approach" to defeat COVID, the Illinois Federation of Teachers and Illinois Education Association said in a joint statement Thursday.

That support contrasts with 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.

IFT President Dan Montgomery told NPR Illinois that local union leaders should be initiating negotiations in the coming days to incorporate the vaccine mandate into existing collective bargaining agreements between teachers and their school districts.

“It's run of the mill bargaining, frankly," he said. "It's the kind of thing we have to bargain [for] all the time."

Montgomery said that while he believes the issue of mandatory vaccination should be relatively uncontroversial among his membership —of which he said 80% to 90% have already gotten their shots — practical implementation of the requirement like providing for time off or procedures for requesting an exemption will be the focus ahead of the Sept. 5 deadline.

The Health Care Council of Illinois, a nursing home industry group, praised the governor's vaccine mandate for healthcare workers on Thursday, saying the organization had called for the move earlier this week.

“We support Gov. Pritzker’s move to require all healthcare workers receive the COVID-19 vaccine and call on those implementing the Governor’s order to ensure that all segments of the industry are covered, including home and community-based services," council spokesman Kevin Heffernan said in a statement.

Mask mandate has no timeline

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 in announcing the return of Illinois' statewide mask mandate Thursday, the governor was equally reticent to specify which metrics would signal the possibility Illinoisans can ditch their masks again in public, saying only that Illinois must "alleviate the pressure on hospitals."

The mask mandate also applies statewide instead of discerning between Illinois' 11 different EMS regions, which have wildly different test positivity rates. Pritzker defended that approach, saying vaccines' wide availability has changed the calculation.

“We are in a much different situation this year now than we were last year or even early in the year," the governor said. "We now have vaccines that are widely available to everybody.”

Republicans were quick to criticize Pritzker's moves on Thursday. While the governor's GOP challengers criticized the mandates themselves, House Republican Leader Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs) condemned Pritzker's decision-making process. In a letter to the governor Thursday morning, Durkin voiced anger that the governor called him Wednesday night but after the two hung up, the Republican was alerted to the new mandates by news reports.

"You are willing to negotiate with your biggest supporters, the public sector unions, on the pandemic response, but still will not listen to the General Assembly or the residents of Illinois most impacted by your actions," Durkin said. I will reiterate my plea on our call yesterday to 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, and I am imploring you to do so immediately."

In response, Pritzker on Thursday would only say he's always open to ideas from legislators.

The governor’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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Hannah Meisel/NPR Illinois
While the number of new COVID infections in Illinois began to pick up in early July as the more transmissible Delta variant took hold, the corresponding rise in deaths from the virus have only begun to show up in state data, as deaths are the ultimate lagging indicator of an increase in COVID cases.

Two influential business groups expressed support for Pritzker's expanded mask mandate on Thursday. Illinois Retail Merchants Association President and CEO Rob Karr told NPR Illinois that required masking helps protect retail workers, but said he wants law enforcement to step in to impose the mask mandate for customers who refuse to comply.

“During the initial mask requirement, retailers were required to try and deny entry, remove people from stores, etc.," Karr said. "We had dozens of extraordinarily negative and dangerous interactions throughout the state. We really didn’t get a lot of the law enforcement support that we were looking for.”

School mask mandate tested

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.

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

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.

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Hannah Meisel/NPR Illinois
The number of COVID shots given daily in Illinois saw a brief uptick in the first half of August, but has fallen again.

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, lawsuits challenging Pritzker’s mask mandate are making their way through the courts. On Wednesday, a Sangamon County judge denied a request for a temporary restraining order on the mask mandate.

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.

Caroline Kubzansky contributed to this report.

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