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Government, Politics & Issues

Pritzker Reluctant To Implement More COVID Restrictions Even As Cases Rise In Illinois

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker asks St. Clair County Health Department Deputy Director Myla Blandford about the county's mass vaccination site on Feb. 18.  The governor continues to stress vaccinations as the best way to curb the pandemic.
File Photo / Eric Schmid
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St. Louis Public Radio
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker asks St. Clair County Health Department Deputy Director Myla Blandford about the county's mass vaccination site on Feb. 18.

Broader restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus appear unlikely to return to specific parts of Illinois, even as the majority of counties in the state experience “high transmission” of the virus.

That includes all of Illinois Department of Public Health regions four and five, which include the counties that comprise the Metro East and southern Illinois.

Both regions have persistent COVID positivity rates more than 8% and sustained COVID-19 hospitalization increases, metrics that triggered new restrictions for local businesses about a year ago.

But Illinois is no longer in that specific mitigation plan, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said during his mask mandate announcement for public and private schools in the state last week.

“We live in a world now where there are vaccinations available to everybody,” he said. “We're simply taking advantage of what we think will work for the most vulnerable populations to keep them safe.”

Pritzker emphasized the state is focused on mitigating the spread of the virus among those who are more susceptible to it, mainly children under 12 who aren’t eligible for vaccinations, teenagers who haven’t gotten their shots yet and those living in long-term care facilities.

Restrictions beyond the ones announced last week are off the table, he added.

“We monitor the numbers very closely, and we make adjustments as necessary,” Pritzker said. “People should go get vaccinated, that is the most important thing you can do to give yourself, your community, your school safe.”

More people in the Metro East have gotten vaccinated in recent days, but the percentage of those who are fully vaccinated remains in the 40s for St. Clair and Madison counties.

“It’s going the way we like to see it,” St. Clair County Emergency Management Agency Director Herb Simmons told the Belleville News-Democrat. “We’re seeing a slight uptick in the first-time doses, which is good.”

Simmons is still frustrated by the rising number of infections across St. Clair County and the Metro East.

“It’s really ridiculous that we’re having to go through this again, because we have a tool available to us,” he said. “These masks are going to be around for a long time.”

Hospitals in the Metro East have capacity to handle more COVID patients, though the number of beds occupied by them has nearly doubled from July 19 to Aug. 2, according to data from IDPH.

Intensive care units in the Metro East are 75% full, but public health officials and hospitals stress that includes people with conditions other than severe COVID.

Some hospitals in the Metro East are sending their most severe COVID patients to facilities in St. Louis as cases spread throughout the bi-state, said Dr. Zafar Jamkhana, ICU medical director for SSM Health St. Louis University Hospital.

“A couple months ago, I would have said I have a patient who has COVID,” he said. “Now at least half of the patients that I’m caring for have COVID or have presented with it.”

The patients who are transferred are those who aren’t responding to normal treatment and need a higher standard that SLU hospital can provide, Jamhkana said. He added the majority of patients he’s seeing fit with broader national trends of younger people and those who are unvaccinated.

“20-year-olds, 30-year-olds. I’m shocked,” Jamkhana said. “That is quite striking.”

Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program: Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

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