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Pritzker not expanding COVID-19 vaccine mandate, but warns of ‘significantly greater mitigations’ if hospitals fill up

A day after Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced she was planning a vaccine mandate for all city workers, Gov. J.B. Pritzker stopped short of extending his more limited requirement to all state employees.

A patient is wheeled out of the Intensive Care Unit at Roseland Community Hospital on the Far South Side in December of 2020.
A patient is wheeled out of the Intensive Care Unit at Roseland Community Hospital on the Far South Side last December.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Tuesday stopped short of expanding his limited vaccine mandate to all state workers, but the governor warned of “significantly greater mitigations” and a move back to earlier precautionary phases if the surge in COVID-19 patients overwhelms hospitals and intensive care units.

“We’re consistently looking at the menu of options that we may need to impose in order to bring down the numbers,” Pritzker said at an unrelated news conference. “I will remind you that if we are not able to bring these numbers down, if hospitals continue to fill, if the hospital beds and ICUs get full like they are in Kentucky — that’s just next door to Illinois — if that happens, we’re going to have to impose significantly greater mitigations.”

That includes “things that we don’t want to go back to” such as a return to phases with more restrictions in place.

The governor’s comments come a day after Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced she’s planning a vaccine mandate for all city workers, a move that follows Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle issuing the same edict for county employees.

The city and county mandates were prompted by a rise in COVID-19 cases statewide, fueled by the spread of the more contagious Delta variant.

The limited vaccine mandate Pritzker announced earlier this month applies to “all state employees at congregate facilities,” including veterans’ homes and prisons. Those workers have till Oct. 4 to get a shot. A federal mandate requires all staff to be vaccinated at nursing homes that receive Medicaid funding, which is “pretty much” every home in Illinois, a Pritzker spokeswoman said.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker receives the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine on March 24 in Springfield.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker receives the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine on March 24 in Springfield.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP file

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s full approval on Monday of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is expected to prompt more businesses to require employees to get vaccinated.

But when reporters asked Pritzker on Tuesday if he planned to extend his vaccine mandate, the governor responded by ticking off the “variety of mandates already in place” to curb the spread of the virus, including his indoor mask mandate for schools and requiring masks in state buildings. He said his public health officials are following recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control, including encouraging people to wear masks indoors.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at an event on Tuesday.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at an event on Tuesday.
Blue Room Stream

While Illinois remains in the middle of the Delta surge, the state’s daily COVID-19 caseload dipped a bit on Tuesday.

The Illinois Department of Public Health reported 2,989 new cases Tuesday, down slightly from the 3,003 cases reported Monday.

Those daily caseloads are down from the 4,904 new cases reported Friday, which is the highest daily case count the department has reported since Jan. 23.

But only one of the state’s 102 counties — Carroll in the northwestern corner of the state — doesn’t fall into the CDC’s color-coded red “high transmission” category. Carroll County is in the “substantial transmission” category, which is just a step behind the high transmission grouping.

Map of U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s coronavirus transmission rates in Illinois.
Map of U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s coronavirus transmission rates in Illinois.
Illinois Department of Public Health

As of Monday night, 568 of the 3,139 beds in intensive care units were still available statewide, public health officials reported.

But hospital capacity varied widely across Illinois. In the southern tip of the state, only one of the total of 84 ICU beds was available as of Tuesday. That area, Region 5, is home to more than 400,000 Illinoisans — and the lowest vaccination rates in the state.

Earlier this month, Pritzker implemented his mask mandate on teachers, staff and students from preschool through 12th grade, and his vaccine mandate for some state workers in congregate settings.

Last week, Lightfoot and Preckwinkle opted to return to indoor mask mandates in Chicago and suburban Cook County for everyone 2 and older, regardless of vaccination status.

Pritzker said in early August that another statewide mask mandate was “not on the table” at the time, but the governor didn’t rule that out for the future.

“Every time we think we know where this virus is headed, it changes, and it shifts,” Pritzker said at the time. “As your governor, it’s my duty to say that we all must take immediate and urgent action to slow the spread of the Delta variant. People are dying who don’t have to die. It’s heartbreaking and it impacts us all.”