Gov. J.B. Pritzker is ending Illinois’ COVID-19 vaccine mandate for college students and faculty and easing some testing requirements for unvaccinated health care workers, changes that come despite growing concerns about new coronavirus variants that appear more able to evade immunity.
Federal health officials this week unveiled a strategy for attempting to manage the highly transmissible omicron subvariants that now make up the majority of cases nationally and doctors have urged a renewed sense of vigilance.
The Pritzker administration billed the changes, which come amid the governor’s bid for a second term, as part of its plan to “carefully unwind” his COVID-19 mandates, which have been in effect for more than two years.
“As we continue to move toward living with this virus, my administration will relax some requirements while continuing to protect the most vulnerable and ensuring we can get every federal dollar our residents are eligible to receive,” Pritzker said Wednesday in a statement.
The same vaccination and testing requirements that have been in place since last year for elementary and secondary schools, as well as day care centers, will remain in effect.
But under Pritzker’s new rules, workers in hospitals and other health care facilities — aside from long-term care facilities — who aren’t fully vaccinated will have to continue to submit to weekly testing but only if they are in a high coronavirus transmission county as determined by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Under the previous rules, all such employees had to be tested weekly regardless of where the facility was located. The rules apply to facilities certified by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
In nursing homes and other long-term care settings, workers not up to date on their vaccines, which includes receiving all recommended booster doses, will have to test twice per week in areas of substantial or high transmission and once weekly in areas of moderate transmission. No testing will be required in areas of low transmission.
The immediate effect of the change may not be drastic because, as of Tuesday, all 102 counties in Illinois were considered high-transmission areas, according to the CDC. That’s not to be confused with the CDC’s COVID-19 community levels, which measure both the prevalence of cases and the strain on the health care system.
In a statement issued by the governor’s office, A.J. Wilhelmi, president and CEO of the Illinois Health and Hospital Association, praised the changes, saying they “will help hospitals maximize the use of resources for patient care, while simultaneously continuing to operate with reasonable and effective infection controls to remain safe places for patients, visitors and health care workers.”
The tweaks by Pritzker to the pandemic rules follow complaints and lawsuits by conservatives claiming the governor has overstepped his authority. They have used the restrictions to try to undercut Pritzker’s reelection bid versus the GOP nominee for governor, state Sen. Darren Bailey of Xenia. Many of the legal challenges to the rules were filed by attorney Thomas DeVore, who is now the Republican nominee for attorney general, though all of those lawsuits have ultimately been unsuccessful.
Days before winning the GOP nomination to challenge Democratic Attorney General Kwame Raoul in November, DeVore last month filed a lawsuit in downstate Madison County challenging the vaccination requirement for higher education on behalf of 10 students and employees at several institutions, including City Colleges of Chicago and the University of Illinois.
In a Facebook post Wednesday, DeVore claimed some credit for Pritzker’s changes.
The president of Harper College in Palatine said she supported the governor’s new rules.
“We appreciate the measures that the governor has taken to support safe learning and working environments for our students to achieve their educational and career goals,” President Avis Proctor said in a statement.
Harper is named as a defendant in DeVore’s lawsuit.
Emergency medical services workers who aren’t fully vaccinated will also be able to avoid routine testing under the new rules.
Jaline Gerardin, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University who works on virus modeling, expressed skepticism at the latest changes to Pritzker’s COVID-19 protocols.
“I would feel more comfortable with relaxing requirements if we had a high-functioning surveillance system and were prepared to make tough decisions based on what it was telling us,” said Gerardin, who’s previously been critical of the administration for being too quick to remove restrictions. “Since we don’t know what new variants may come our way, when and where they’ll show up, how our existing natural and/or vaccine-induced immunity may or may not protect us … we could be playing with fire since we are flying blind with respect to being able to quickly understand the on-the-ground situation.”
Pritzker’s decision to leave the vaccination requirement in place for employees in K-12 schools was praised by the leaders of the state’s largest school district and its two largest teachers unions. The governor’s office said the requirement will remain for schools and day cares because children in those age groups “have much lower rates of vaccination than the general public and have less ability to consistently and safely mask.”
In a statement Wednesday, a spokesperson for Chicago Public Schools said unvaccinated employees working the summer session are required to participate in weekly testing at their school. The district said it will continue to uphold these testing requirements in the upcoming school year.
About 91% of CPS staff members are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the district said, along with more than 54% of the eligible student population.
Some 90,000 CPS students and 30,000 staff members consented in the last school year to participate in the district’s weekly in-school testing program, where 64,000 tests were administered per week in the second half of the school year. CPS said it will continue to offer free testing of consenting students at every school every week.
Keeping the vaccination requirement in schools “will ensure that children, teachers, staff and our communities stay safe and healthy,” Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, said in a statement. “(Pritzker’s) leadership ensured that we ended the last school year with a successful vaccination model, which sets us up for the upcoming school year so we can keep our school buildings open and everyone in them healthy.”
While Pritzker’s off-ramp plans did not appear to bring changes for the state’s K-12 schools, John Burkey, executive director of the Large Unit District Association, said leaders at Illinois school districts are anxious to learn what the state’s specific guidance for schools will look like in the fall.
“The tone I’m aware of is most people have moved on, but of course, there are still parents who are nervous about the health of their medically fragile children,” Burkey said, adding he expected many school districts will resume their saliva-based testing programs in the fall.
“Everyone knows COVID will still be around when the new school year starts, but we’re not sure how prevalent these new variants are because people are not testing as much, and many people have moved on,” Burkey said.
Chicago Tribune’s Tracy Swartz contributed.
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