Illinois health care workers and educators from kindergarten through college will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to weekly testing, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Thursday in announcing new safety protocols that also include a fresh statewide mandate for masks to be worn indoors.

The mandates, which overlap in several places with existing rules, are a response to a spike in COVID-19 infections fueled by the highly contagious delta variant, particularly in southern and central Illinois.

Local officials said the new rules were not unexpected in the face of increasing case counts.

“It’s not surprising, seeing how our numbers have been going, but hopefully, it’s enough to get people to pay attention and do what they can do to help lower our cases down,” said Sandra Schleicher, public health administrator for Jo Daviess County.

There were 74 new COVID-19 cases reported in the county during the two-week period that ended on Wednesday.

The surge in Illinois, with more than 4,400 cases reported Wednesday, has started overwhelming hospitals in less-populated areas in the state where vaccination rates are low and there are fewer health care facilities. For instance, in southern Illinois, fewer than half of the residents are vaccinated and earlier this week there was only one available intensive care unit hospital bed available, according to state health officials.

In August, public health departments statewide have reported more than two dozen COVID-19 outbreaks at schools, according to Pritzker’s office.

“Our current vaccination levels are not enough to blunt the ferocity of the delta variant hospitalization surges,” said Pritzker, a first-term Democrat, at a Chicago news conference. “In some regions, hospital administrators are asking for more help to manage the sheer number of incoming patients who, I’ll emphasize again, are almost exclusively individuals who have chosen not to have gotten the life-saving vaccine.”

The mask order, which begins Monday, Aug. 30, applies to everyone age 2 and older, regardless of vaccination status. It’s similar to an order issued in May 2020, which was later relaxed for vaccinated people.

First doses of the vaccine are required by Sept. 5 for health care workers, including nursing home employees; K-12 educators and support staff; and higher education teachers, staff and students. Those who don’t comply will have to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing.

East Dubuque school district Superintendent TJ Potts said Thursday that he and other school officials across the state had been advised that such a measure was possible.

“We received a notification that there was a potential for this early this morning … so I’m not totally caught off guard or surprised,” he said.

He does not know the exact vaccination rate of his staff but estimates that it is at least 75% based on conversations he has had with staff and administrators.

He said the option for weekly testing hopefully will allay concerns among staff members who are unable or unwilling to be vaccinated.

“I think when people thought their only option was to get vaccinated, there was a little bit of concern,” he said. “(But) it sounds like there will be able to be a testing protocol for those who don’t want to be vaccinated … so people do have an option.”

Galena school district Superintendent Tim Vincent said the mandate will affect only a small number of district employees because, as of the start of the school year, 95% of staff were vaccinated.

“Our job tonight and tomorrow is to make everybody aware of the Sept. 5 deadline or the other options if they are continuing to choose to be unvaccinated,” he said Thursday. “I think we can work with them and be in compliance fairly quickly.”

Colleen Fox, superintendent of the River Ridge, Ill., school district, said the district was exploring its next steps.

“At this point, all that’s happened is that an email was shared with all staff providing the information from the governor’s conference today,” she said Thursday afternoon. “Same as everyone else ... we’re trying to figure out what this will mean and where we need to go.”

Illinois already has a mask requirement for all schools, and two of the largest education systems, Chicago Public Schools and the University of Illinois, already require educator vaccinations. A large number of hospital systems also already required employee vaccines.

The new vaccination requirement for health care workers also includes employees of public and private nursing homes.

Vicki Nemmers, regional manager for Bell Tower Retirement Community in East Dubuque, declined to comment on the new protocols, stating that she had not yet read the mandate in detail.

However, she said about 90% of Bell Tower’s staff is currently vaccinated.

“We’re sitting better than most people,” she said.

In Jo Daviess County, 73% of the county’s population was fully vaccinated as of Thursday.

Several local business owners said they expected the return of a mask mandate and already were preparing to reinstate their former protocols.

“We’ll just roll back into the procedures we were using before,” said Alana Turner, co-owner of Galena gift shop Poopsie’s. “... Our staff is plenty used to wearing masks, so we’ve been prepping them for the last week or so.”

She said about 50% of staff and customers already were wearing masks voluntarily.

Warren Bell, the owner of Galena Brewing Co., shared a similar sentiment.

As of Thursday afternoon, he already had met with his staff, who he said are willing to resume mask-wearing. Customers, he acknowledged, are “a different matter,” but he hopes for a fairly smooth return to the requirement.

“On the news, we’re hearing that the delta variant has been spreading quite quickly, and I didn’t see that Illinois was going to be unscathed by this,” he said. “It’s obviously regrettable, and it is going to be an inconvenience to customers and staff, but I think it’s the best response for the situation.”

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