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Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White wore a mask when he toured a driver’s license facility last fall. Mask regulations, which had been relaxed in recent months, were re-imposed earlier this week at all driver’s license offices. --Supplied photo

Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White wore a mask when he toured a driver’s license facility last fall. Mask regulations, which had been relaxed in recent months, were re-imposed earlier this week at all driver’s license offices. --Supplied photo

‘Here we go again’

Mask regs return as pandemic strikes back

By Tim Hadac and

Jerry Nowicki
Capitol News Illinois

As the COVID-19 delta variant continues to sweep across Chicago and the rest of the state, mask mandates began to return last week, causing what appeared to be a collective groan among some in Clearing and Garfield Ridge.

“Here we go again,” sighed John Bavaro, one of several customers offering opinions outside Fair Share Foods, 6422 W. 63rd St.—where shoppers have not been required to wear masks for a couple of months, although employees still do. “Just when we think we’re out of this mess, we’re right back in the slop.”

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Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White wore a mask when he toured a driver’s license facility last fall. Mask regulations, which had been relaxed in recent months, were re-imposed earlier this week at all driver’s license offices. –Supplied photo

Kris Rybczyk said he stopped wearing a mask months ago and has “no plans to start up again. No one I know has this disease. I think this whole [pandemic] has been exaggerated. It’s like they want us to be afraid or something. I don’t know why.”

Esther Rangel was one of the few customers wearing a mask.

“I got vaccinated as soon as I could, back in April,” she said. “But now I’m hearing that even if you’re vaccinated, you could get infected. My relatives wanted me to go a family reunion last month in Missouri. But I didn’t go. Then I hear that three of my relatives got COVID after attending the reunion. That told me all I need to know. People should put their masks back on. We’re not done with this yet.”

Case numbers drive mask regs

Just a few minutes away from Clearing and Garfield Ridge, at the state driver’s license facility in Bridgeview, customers started wearing masks earlier this week, as Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White announced new mask regulations.

White was not alone.

Gov. JB Pritzker said he is “looking at all the possible mitigations” amid another surge of COVID-19 infections.

The secretary of state’s announcement came one day after the Illinois Department of Public Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated guidance to recommend individuals in areas with “substantial risk” or greater for the spread of COVID-19 should wear face coverings regardless of vaccination status.

“Substantial” risk occurs when new cases are between 50 to 99 per 100,000 people over a 7-day period, while “high” risk occurs when cases exceed that amount. A CDC county map, viewable at covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#county-view, shows much of the state’s western half along the Missouri border is at high or substantial risk, as is most of southern Illinois.

The CDC also recommended masks be worn by all individuals in K-12 schools, and IDPH announced it “fully aligns” with the federal guidance. The governor warned that districts disobeying guidance could face civil liability.

White’s new mask requirement will also apply to the Illinois State Capitol and all secretary of state offices. The announcement came as the state reported 2,082 new COVID-19 cases, the most since May 7, and the case positivity rate rose to 4 percent, the highest since April 19.

The guidance that all people in school buildings should wear face coverings comes just 18 days after the CDC released guidance saying masks were suggested only for those who had not been vaccinated.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky of the CDC said in a briefing the main reason for the change in guidance is the fact that the COVID-19 delta variant – which makes up “8 in 10” of the COVID-19 cases that have had been sequenced in laboratories – is less predictable and more transmissible than previous versions of the virus. It’s also due to the fact that fewer people than expected have chosen to become vaccinated nationwide.

“When we released our school guidance on July 9, we had less delta variant in this country, we had fewer cases in this country, and importantly, we were really hopeful that we would have more people vaccinated, especially in the demographic between 12 to 17 years old,” Walensky said according to an audio recording posted to the CDC website.

She said the guidance is aimed at protecting those who cannot be vaccinated, such as children 11 years of age and younger and those who are immune-compromised.

While Pritzker said the state has “wanted school districts to make decisions for themselves throughout the last year to keep their districts safe,” school districts face the risk of being held liable in civil courts “if they don’t live up to the standard that is set by the CDC.”

The Illinois State Board of Education echoed those comments in a statement Wednesday.

“Illinois fully adopted the CDC’s updated guidance for K-12 schools on July 27, which recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status,” an ISBE spokesperson said in an email. “School boards that choose not to implement public health guidance are putting their students and staff at risk and should consult with their insurers as to potential liability.”

Other than that, ISBE’s most recent guidance, encouraging school boards to work with local health departments on mitigations, remains in place.

Pandemic of the unvaccinated

Walensky characterized current spread of COVID-19 as a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” She said while the vast majority of disease transmission is happening between unvaccinated individuals, there are “rare occasions” in which vaccinated people have been spreading the virus to others, which necessitated the guidance for vaccinated individuals to wear face coverings.

But the vaccine is largely effective in preventing severe illness, hospitalization and death in those who receive it.

“We continue to estimate that the risk of a breakthrough infection with symptoms upon exposure to the delta variant is reduced by seven fold. The reduction is 20 fold for hospitalizations and deaths,” Walensky said.

Walensky also said a major concern as the virus continues to spread and mutate is that it eventually evolves into a “very transmissible virus that has the potential to evade our vaccine in terms of how it protects us from severe disease and death.”

While “we’re not there yet,” she said, that mutation could be as few as “two mutations away” from the current circulating variants.

As of now, 99 percent of COVID-19 deaths in Illinois are occurring in unvaccinated individuals, Pritzker has said.

As of July 27, there were 857 people hospitalized for COVID-19 across the state, a high since June 4 and a 50 percent increase from exactly one week prior.

Intensive care bed usage by COVID-19 patients is up 56 percent from the previous week, with 184 beds in use by COVID-19 patients, including 74 on ventilators.

Another six deaths were attributed to the virus last Wednesday, bringing the confirmed death toll in Illinois to 23,420, with 2,473 probable COVID-19 deaths as well since the pandemic began.

The pace of vaccinations continued to slow last Wednesday, with 17,982 doses administered daily over the past week, down from a peak of 130,000 in April. About half of the state’s population has been fully vaccinated, according to IDPH.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

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