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Face facts: Mask mandate stays till COVID-19 hospitalizations fall, Pritzker says after getting booster shot

The state’s COVID-19 numbers have improved, but not enough to make the governor consider rescinding his statewide indoor mask mandate, Pritzker said after receiving a Pfizer booster shot on the Near West Side.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker receives his COVID-19 vaccine booster Tuesday at Mile Square Health Center.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker receives his COVID-19 vaccine booster Tuesday at Mile Square Health Center.
State of Illinois livestream

Gov. J.B. Pritzker rolled up a sleeve for his COVID-19 booster shot Tuesday morning and urged eligible residents to do the same, calling it “the safest thing to do” as coronavirus hospitalizations remain stubbornly high in Illinois despite overall improvement in other metrics.

About seven months after receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the 56-year-old Democratic governor said he opted for a Pfizer-BioNTech dose this time around because it’s “one that has been recommended to me before, and so I thought I’ll try another one.”

“The booster makes you safer from the virus, so please go get it,” Pritzker said shortly before getting his second jab at the Mile Square Health Center on the Near West Side. “Don’t think that just because you got it the first time that it will last forever as the safest way to go. The safest thing to do is to get your booster shot.”

But even as he urged Illinoisans to bare their arms, the governor is not ready to tell them to uncover their faces. He said only when COVID-19 hospitalizations drop will he start “getting more and more optimistic” about relaxing masking restrictions.

About 800,000 Illinoisans have already re-upped their protection since booster shots received federal approval in late September.

Any adult who received a Johnson & Johnson shot is eligible for a booster two months after their first shot. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends Pfizer and Moderna boosters six months after completing the initial vaccine series for recipients 65 or older, plus all other adults with underlying medical conditions, as well as those who live or work in “high-risk settings” like jails, grocery stores and schools.

But with nearly a quarter of the state population still unvaccinated, “our priority remains getting those people who have not gotten any shot to get that first shot,” Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said. About 77% of Illinois residents 12 or older have gotten a shot, and nearly 71% are considered fully vaccinated.

COVID-19 vaccine doses administered by day

Graphic by Jesse Howe and Caroline Hurley | Sun-Times

Source: Illinois Department of Public Health

Graph not displaying properly? Click here.

“So those of you who are thinking about getting your third [dose], you are making the right thought, but those of you who have not gotten a single shot: Please, you need to start on your vaccination journey,” said Ezike, who got her booster last week.

Thousands of children aged 5 to 11 are expected to start that journey later this week, after the CDC gave its approval Tuesday night.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker listens as Dr. Ngozi Ezike briefs the media at the James R. Thompson Center in the Loop in May.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker listens as Dr. Ngozi Ezike briefs the media at the James R. Thompson Center in the Loop in May.
Anthony Vazquez, Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

Pritzker said that even though kids are required to receive numerous other vaccinations before enrolling in public schools, there wouldn’t be any requirement for kids to be inoculated against COVID-19 this school year.

“That probably could change, much further down the line,” Ezike said, but only after the vaccines receive full federal approvals beyond the current emergency use authorization currently issued by the Food and Drug Administration.

Any potential vaccination requirement for school enrollment would have to go through the state Legislature, Pritzker said.

Meanwhile, the state’s COVID-19 numbers have improved — but not enough to make the governor consider rescinding his statewide indoor mask mandate.

Average daily cases have shrunk by more than half since the height of the Delta variant surge in late August, but the masks will stay on until the state sees a marked decrease in hospitalizations, Pritzker said.

Hospitals were treating 1,274 coronavirus patients Monday night. The state has hovered around that level for about two weeks, well below the roughly 2,200 hospitalizations per night during the Delta surge — but still triple the nightly figure of about 400 that marked a pandemic low in the early summer.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker adjusts his face mask after a news conference last year.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker adjusts his face mask after a news conference last year.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

“That is not a good sign,” Pritzker said. “Now we’ve leveled out at a level that is much higher than the summer. … If the number of people in the hospital with COVID-19 is heading downward, that’s a really good sign and means that we’re, you know, getting more and more optimistic about removing indoor mask mandates outside of the schools.”

Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady agreed during a separate online Q&A that “this is no time for complacency.” The citywide positivity rate is at 1.7%, a tenth of a percentage point higher than last week and still nearly three times more than the pre-Delta low of 0.6%.

The city also updated its travel quarantine advisory to include 41 states that are considered coronavirus hot spots. The only ones that aren’t are Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, South Carolina and Texas, plus Washington D.C., Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.