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‘Welcomed step’ or ‘ridiculous’? State lawmakers split on decision to move them up in COVID-19 vaccine line

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s spokeswoman said the decision was made at the “request of members of the General Assembly.” Still, the governor plans to wait his turn.

Illinois lawmakers gather on the floor of the Bank of Springfield Center for the lame-duck session of the Illinois House in January.
Illinois lawmakers gather on the floor of the Bank of Springfield Center for the lame-duck session of the Illinois House during the COVID-19 pandemic in Springfield in January.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP file

State legislators were green-lighted Wednesday to receive the COVID-19 vaccine during the current phase of the state’s inoculation plan — and like everything in politics today, the move sparked sharp partisan disagreements.

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s spokeswoman said the decision was made at the “request of members of the General Assembly.”

Democratic House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch called it a “welcomed step in the interest of government functionality and safety.”

But Republican legislative leaders called it “ridiculous” to allow the 177 state lawmakers to move ahead of other members of the public not yet eligible for the potentially life-saving vaccine.

“We need to wait our turn,” said state Republican House Leader Jim Durkin. “And if we have members of the General Assembly who have preexisting conditions, they will have an opportunity to go before most of the public, but we should not leapfrog over anyone in this crisis.”

A little over a week ago, the state began Phase 1B of its vaccine distribution plan, a category that broadly includes people 65 and older and those classified by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as front-line essential workers — including teachers, first responders and grocery workers.

Lawmakers don’t fit into the definition of front-line workers per CDC guidelines, but they requested the vaccine in order to get their work done, Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said.

“The state of Illinois has urgent and vital business that must be addressed, and we hope that the General Assembly will engage in a robust and productive schedule in coming weeks and months,” Abudayyeh said in a statement.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker appears at a COVID-19 briefing Monday at the Thompson Center in the Loop in November.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker appears at a COVID-19 briefing Monday at the Thompson Center in the Loop in November.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

At a later unrelated news conference Wednesday afternoon, Pritzker said that he intends to wait his turn to get the vaccine, but “we need the state of Illinois and its Legislature ... to function well.”

“We had seven months or so ... without any legislation really going through, there was no meeting of the General Assembly from May all the way through to the lame-duck session,” Pritzker said. “I now believe that we’ll be able to move forward, we have so many things to accomplish ... including ... the priority of balancing the budget for the state.”

Even as Welch voiced support for the move, the Hillside Democrat said the decision was Pritzker’s.

“While part of my job as speaker is to relay the range of opinions among all House members, it was important that this decision rest with the governor and his team of health experts,” Welch said in a statement.

“The issues and challenges facing the General Assembly are enormous, so this is a welcomed step in the interest of government functionality and safety. Whether or not to get a vaccine is a personal choice for every member, but I encourage those who are at-risk or have vulnerable family members to strongly consider it.”

State House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, waves as he gets a standing ovation after being elected to the chamber’s top leadership post in January.
State House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, waves as he gets a standing ovation after being elected to the chamber’s top leadership post in January.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP file

At an unrelated news conference Wednesday morning, state Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie, R-Hawthorn Woods, called moving legislators up in the vaccine line “ridiculous.”

“I’ve been critical of the governor’s management of the COVID-19 crisis,” McConchie said. “Since last March, I have talked about the fact that the governor shouldn’t continue his ‘go it alone’ approach, that the Legislature should be, as a co-equal branch of government, actively involved.”

McConchie said he’s reintroduced legislation to ensure that emergency proclamations “can’t be endless but has to bring in the legislative branch as a part of that process.”

Durkin, of Western Springs, said he and others have received calls and emails from people who are “extremely frustrated” by the vaccination process because they qualify for the vaccine but aren’t able to get an appointment to get it.

State House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, speaks during a House session at the Bank of Springfield Center in January.
State House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, speaks during a House session at the Bank of Springfield Center in January.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP file

Bob Gallo, the Illinois state director for AARP, said the association’s position is that older adults should be prioritized to get the vaccine first.

“There’s limited supply and [those who are] 50-plus are highest risk,” Gallo said in a statement. “The goal should be to ramp up supply so everyone can get it ASAP — but the realities are still anchored in not having enough vaccine for all.”

Members of the House and staff were told to self-quarantine after their lame-duck session last month because someone at the Bank of Springfield Center tested positive for the coronavirus. Welch’s chief of staff and two others also tested positive for the virus.

Concerns around COVID-19 led both the House and the Senate to scrap their upcoming session days. The House still plans to meet for one day, Feb. 10, to pass the rules that will govern their procedures.

The state Senate also canceled in-person session days scheduled for late January and all of February. Senators plan to hold virtual committee hearings until March 2, when they are next scheduled to meet in Springfield.