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Mandates Mark A New Front In The Battle Against COVID-19

Joe Deacon

When Gov. JB Pritzker reimposed an indoor mask mandate on Thursday, it was an acknowledgment COVID-19 is making another comeback after the state was seemingly turning the tide.

"To put it bluntly, because of the Delta variant, hospitals are fighting the battle we hoped would be behind us by now," Pritzker said during a Thursday press conference.

Pritzker's new directives also come with vaccination mandates for pre-K through 12th grade teachers, as well as higher education staff and students. Health care workers are also subject to the requirement to get at least the first dose of a two-dose COVID-19 vaccine by Sept. 5, or else commit to getting tested at least once a week.

Only about 59% of Illinois residents age 12 and older are considered fully vaccinated. Those rates are even lower in the Tri-County area, according to Peoria City/County Health Department Administrator Monica Hendrickson.

"Even with this highly contagious Delta variant, we have vaccines that are effective, but we only have 48.7% of Peoria County residents fully vaccinated, 49% of Tazewell County residents, and 46% of Woodford County residents," she said.

Those low vaccination rates, combined with the virulent variant, brought the region back up to COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations not seen since May, when the state was coming off a spring COVID-19 surge.

"This is not the path we should be on at all," Hendrickson said.

Dr. Praveen Sudhindra, an infectious diseases specialist at UnityPoint Health-Peoria, said he can only remember seeing two fully vaccinated patients in the ICU recently. The overwhelming majority of those hospitalized for COVID-19 are unvaccinated, he said.

"At this point in the pandemic (this) is essentially preventable," Sudhindra said. "It leads to immense strain to our healthcare system, our health care workers, nursing staff, physicians advanced practice providers. It also strains the supply chain in terms of medications that we're currently using to treat these patients with severe COVID-19 disease. And in some instances, we're also seeing shortages of some of the medications that we need to use."

Vaccines still remain an effective bulwark against the worst effects of the Delta variant. But health officials fear the next mutation may be more resistant to the vaccinations on the market.

Hendrickson said much of the focus of the recent mandates is on younger populations and those who work with them, because they now make up the largest total proportion of new COVID-19 cases. In Peoria County, more than 1 in 5 active COVID-19 patients are 20-29 years old. Seventeen percent are ages 10-19.

Peoria County Regional Superintendent Beth Crider said the top priority of school districts is to ensure face-to-face instruction continues safely amid the pandemic.

"We know that works best for our students," Crider said. "So the vaccination is the number one mitigation strategy that we're using to keep our children safe so that we can stay in that back-to-school, face-to-face instruction."

While Crider commended the effort to shift to remote learning on extremely short notice back in March 2020, she said the last 18 months show that it is no replacement for in-person instruction, both in terms of learning and mental health.

Peoria Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat welcomed the mandate. She said it will help ensure in-person learning can happen safely.

"This is all about having an in-person experience. We know what we experienced last year. We know, for our district and for the majority of our children, the remote experience is not as effective as in-person for a variety of reasons," she said. "So we really need to continue to have that option available for our kids. And to do that, we just have to follow these steps."

Kherat said the district is prepared to enforce the vaccination mandate amidst the rising COVID-19 cases in the Peoria area. Kherat said the mandate will help the district better assess its internal vaccination rates.

Peoria Federation of Teachers president Jeff Adkins-Dutro declined to comment before the union's executive board had a chance to discuss the issue. The Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Illinois Education Association are backing the mandate.

Crider said districts may have some collective bargaining issues with teachers' unions over the mandate, but there's not much wiggle room on the basic requirements.

"In any contract bargaining agreement, you can't break the law. So if this is a mandate, there will be the option of the weekly testing. But quite honestly, the devil is in the details and talking with some of our local superintendents today, we have not worked out what does that look like to get tested weekly. How do you report that back to your administration? We still have to work out some of those things," Crider said.

Hendrickson said it is sad things have gotten to the point where employer or government vaccination mandates are increasingly coming into play to compel people to get the vaccine. While most people who were eager to get vaccinated have already done so, she said many of the unvaccinated may not understand the science, or may not want to. She said misinformation is also a factor.

"There's never a one size fits all in a response. You know, we all hope that everyone would have taken advantage when we could, but we are at this point," she said. "And, you know, if this takes us across that finish line that we are all hoping to be at, then it's one step closer."

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.
Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.
Olivia Streeter is an intern at WCBU. The Illinois State University student joined WCBU in 2020.