‘We’re not done with this’

Pritzker orders masks at schools, day cares, long-term care facilities

By Tim Hadac and

Jerry Nowicki
Capitol News Illinois

Clearing and Garfield Ridge residents are reacting with a mix of views about the idea of being required to wear face coverings again.

The news came last week as Gov. JB Pritzker announced that masks will be required at all Illinois long-term care facilities, day care centers and elementary and high schools—public and private.

The news broke amid a nationwide surge of COVID-19 cases.

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Governor JB Pritzker was fully masked last month as he toured a health facility to discuss the need for blood donations in the pandemic. –Supplied photo

“Every time we think we know where this virus is headed, it changes and it shifts,” Pritzker said at a COVID-19 briefing in Chicago. “For example, unlike before, people 29 years old and younger accounted for 12 percent of hospitalizations. All across the nation, we are seeing young people with no underlying conditions now on ventilators. I want to say specifically to young adults: Please do not think that the worst case scenario can’t happen to you. It can happen. It is happening. Get vaccinated.”

Local reaction mixed

Some in Clearing and Garfield Ridge see it the governor’s way; others, not so much, according to local Facebook chatter.

“I can’t blame the governor for ordering these precautions,” said Sam Jantzen. “What if he doesn’t, and it comes out later that all these kids got infected when they didn’t have to? He’s just doing his job. We’re not done with this.”

Craig McConologue said he wishes Pritzker “would just make up his mind. In 2020 he ran to Chinatown to stage a photo thing where he told everyone it was fine to walk around without a mask, and that anyone who was concerned about COVID-19 was just some kind of anti-Chinese bigot. How did that work out?”

Antonia Maldonado said she completely agrees with the governor requiring masks in schools, “but they had better not shut down schools again. I can’t afford to quit my job and stay home again. We’re just out of money. I have to get to work.”

Deborah Schmidt said, “One thing no one seems to be thinking about is the psychological damage this is doing to the children. They went a year separated from personal contact with their friends; and now that they finally can take off their masks and simply be kids again, the adults of the world are ordering them to put their masks back on. Children aren’t as emotionally resilient as we like to think.”

Virus attacking kids

Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said youth hospitalizations and infections have been rising.

About 5.5 percent of COVID-19 cases were among those who are younger than 10 years of age in January, Ezike said, but that number increased to 15 percent last month. Approximately 13 percent of cases in January were among those 10-19 years old, increasing to 23 percent in July. Hospitalizations for those 20 years old and younger have tripled from 2.5 percent to 7.8 percent in that time span.

“And yes, while most children who get COVID have fewer symptoms than adults, they absolutely can still get COVID-19 and they can absolutely spread it to others,” Ezike said, noting many cases of the virus have spread at youth camps this summer.

The masking requirement extends to indoor but not outdoor activities and sports.

While Pritzker said masks are important in schools, especially for students who are not yet eligible for the vaccine, the best approach to limiting the spread of COVID-19 is getting vaccinated. It’s also the best way to limit severe illness and death.

In Illinois, 6.5 million people are fully vaccinated, or 51.2 percent of the population, while 73 percent of the population that is older than 12 years of age has received at least one dose of the vaccine. The state averaged 28,180 vaccine doses administered each day over the past seven days.

Of the millions of fully vaccinated individuals, just 714 have spent time in the hospital with COVID-19, according to IDPH. Since January, 180 vaccinated individuals have died of COVID-19 symptoms, accounting for just 2.58 percent of the COVID-19-related deaths this calendar year. That number increased by 11 from the state’s reporting of the numbers last week.

That’s about 0.01 percent of vaccinated individuals who have been hospitalized for the virus and 0.003 percent who have died of complications.

“The overwhelming majority of cases, the hospitalizations, the deaths are among those who are not vaccinated,” Ezike said. “And the majority of transmission is also among the unvaccinated. …But the key is that we actually have the tools to turn the tide on the next wave. And that next wave wants to threaten us if we don’t avail ourselves of these tools.”

Pritzker said there are two routes to enforcing the mask mandate, including civil liability for schools not enforcing the mandate and the removal of recognition status by the Illinois State Board of Education.

The Illinois Department of Public Health also announced last week it is making free COVID-19 testing available to K-12 schools across the state through the SHIELD Illinois saliva-based test developed by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The test can detect the virus and its variants in those with or without symptoms.

The testing would allow close contacts of a COVID-19-positivie individual to stay in the classroom as long as they test negative. Funding comes from federal COVID-19 relief packages.

By Oct. 4, all Illinois state employees working in congregate facilities will be required to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

The order covers certain employees at the Departments of Human Services, Veterans’ Affairs, Corrections and Juvenile Justice working in congregate facilities, and Pritzker said the state has reached out to the unions representing those employees to work out the details.

Illinois is also requiring universal masking in private long-term care facilities and “strongly encourages owners of private facilities to join the state in adopting vaccination requirements,” according to the governor’s office.

Pritzker’s announcement came as 1,165 people were hospitalized for COVID-19, including 246 in intensive care unit beds and 94 on ventilators.

The state’s seven-day average case positivity rate for COVID-19 was 4.4 percent, while the state reported another 18 deaths, a high since June 24. That brought the death toll to 23,476 since the pandemic began with another 2,428 deaths reported with probable links to COVID-19.

Pritzker said the state is “evaluating every day” the trajectory of the virus and other potential mitigations that may be needed.

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.