Aug 4, 2021
Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker COVID-19 Press Conference Transcript: School Mask Mandate
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker held a press conference on August 4, 2021 to announce a mask mandate for schools. He also announced a vaccine mandate for all state employees. Read the transcript of the coronavirus briefing here.
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Governor Pritzker: (00:00)
I’m here with, of course, Illinois Department of Public Health director, Dr. Ngozi Ezike to address the growing threat of the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus. Since we reached our lowest case numbers earlier this summer, we’ve seen COVID-19 cases soar by a factor of nearly 10. Hospitalizations and ICU rates have doubled in a month. And since the middle of July, the number of COVID patients requiring a ventilator has multiplied nearly two and a half times over. This upward movement has occurred almost entirely among those who are unvaccinated.
Governor Pritzker: (00:43)
In the month of June, 96% of people hospitalized in Illinois with COVID-19 were unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated. The majority of which were under 60 years old. Every time we think we know where this virus is headed, it changes and it shifts. For example, unlike before people, 29 years old and younger accounted for 12% of hospitalizations. All across the nation, we are seeing young people with no underlying conditions now on ventilators. I want to say specifically to young adults, please do not think that the worst case scenario can’t happen to you. It can happen. It is happening. Get vaccinated. To parents of minors who are eligible to get the shot. Please get your children vaccinated as soon as possible. This isn’t just happening to young people. To everyone listening, I wish we could have avoided having COVID interfere with our summer, but the virus and its effects are increasing once again. And the largest group affected who are being hit especially hard are those that are unvaccinated.
Governor Pritzker: (02:05)
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. Given our current trajectory, we have a limited amount of time right now to stave off the highest peaks of this surge going into the fall. We need to act now or risk what we’re starting to see in places like Florida, which has once again set a new record for COVID hospitalizations. Unlike last year, at this time, we now have an extremely effective tool to save lives and keep our hospital systems from being overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. It will allow us to support kids full return to in-person learning. It will keep businesses open and it’s easy to get. It’s the vaccine.
Governor Pritzker: (03:11)
For those of you who are still sitting on the fence about getting vaccinated, I urge you to talk to your own doctor about your concerns or listen to Dr. Ezike and the world-class medical professionals that I’ve invited here over the past year and a half. All of whom now will tell you that the vaccine is safe, effective, and it prevents serious illness or death even from the Delta variant. Every Illinoisan who is eligible should get vaccinated as soon as possible. In the meantime, we cannot delay taking action. Today, I am announcing our initial actions to combat the fast-moving Delta variant.
Governor Pritzker: (03:56)
We are taking three key steps to protect our state’s 1. 8 million unvaccinated children under 12 and their families, residents, and staff of long-term care facilities, and those highly vulnerable people who rely upon state employees for their daily care. First, far too few school districts have chosen to follow the federal centers for disease control prescriptions for keeping students and staff safe. Though I want to commend the districts in Edwardsville, in Champagne, in Peoria, in Springfield, in Elgin, in Chicago and others for already doing the right thing for their students. Given the CDC’s strong recommendation, I had hoped that a state mask requirement in schools wouldn’t be necessary, but it is.
Governor Pritzker: (04:53)
The Delta variant is highly transmissible, more so than any other previous forms of this virus. Because of the lower rates of vaccination among teens aged 20 to seven, sorry, 12 to 17, because the vaccine has not yet been approved for children under 12, because of the vaccine, because there are many people who are reluctant across some of the districts to adopt the CDC guidance, effective immediately, all P-12 schools and daycares in Illinois must follow the CDC guidance of universal masking inside, regardless of vaccine status. My goal has always been to safely bring all kids back into the classroom at the start of the school year and crucially to keep them there. Without these measures, we would likely see many more outbreaks then in the latter half of the last school year. Preventing outbreaks from the start also prevents kids from having to stay home because they’re sick or in quarantine.
Governor Pritzker: (06:04)
This requirement extends to P-12 sports. Face coverings will be required for all indoor recreation whereas outdoor where transmission risks and rates are lower, athletes and coaches will not be required to mask. We will continue to encourage school districts to make sure their athletes are tested regularly to catch any potential outbreaks early. And to ensure that schools have what they need to adhere to the new mask requirement, my administration is ready to supply masks to any school districts that need them. That’s on top of the free COVID-19 testing supplies we’re providing to all of our public schools statewide.
Governor Pritzker: (06:51)
Throughout this pandemic, we’ve shifted public health protocols as circumstances have changed and we’ll continue to do so. We’ll continue to watch for things like a significant reduction in transmission, the availability and utilization of vaccines for school aged children under 12 and additional guidance from the CDC. And as we see developments in those areas, we will adjust our requirements for schools accordingly. Again, our goal has always been to make sure that every child can go to school this fall and that the school environment is safe for everyone. Today, I’m also announcing that Illinois will require vaccinations for all state employees who work in congregate facilities, such as our veterans homes, our corrections facilities, and the department of human services, developmental centers, and psychiatric hospitals. Our most vulnerable residents, such as veterans who can’t live on their own and adults living with developmental disabilities have no choice, but to live amongst these workers. By and large residents of these state run facilities have done what they can do to protect themselves by getting vaccinated. For example, residents of our state’s veterans homes have vaccination rates of 96%, 98% and even 100%. And yet many of the long-term care facilities employees have themselves not been vaccinated. They run the risk of carrying the virus into work with them. And then it’s the residents who are ending up seriously sick, hospitalized, or worse. It’s a breach of safety. It’s fundamentally wrong. And in Illinois, it’s going to stop. We already require masks for everyone entering state facilities, but if we’re going to fully protect our vulnerable populations, the most effective infection control measure is vaccination. It’s our obligation to exercise due care and protecting the health…
Governor Pritzker: (09:03)
… obligation to exercise due care in protecting the health of those residents and so we will. We’ve notified the unions about this necessary safety measure, requesting that they come to the negotiating table to work out the details. Our state agencies will continue to make the vaccine readily available for employees, including hosting vaccination drives at work sites and offering paid time off for receiving the vaccine. This directive takes effect October 4th, two months from today, leaving ample time for employees to get fully vaccinated. If I could do it sooner, I would. Until then, all employees will remain masked up.
Governor Pritzker: (09:49)
Finally, I’m announcing a universal mask mandate in all long-term care facilities, all long-term care facilities across Illinois, including those that are privately owned and operated. This means everyone, vaccinated or not, must wear a mask when in a facility with long-term care patients and residents. This is already standard practice in much of the industry, but while the Delta variant rages on, I want to leave no doubt on the need for compliance.
Governor Pritzker: (10:23)
I will continue to listen to the IDPH and other experts to evaluate any and all necessary action to protect children, prevent death, and support our healthcare systems. I’m asking private employers to do the same. Already, we’ve seen companies with Illinois operations like Tyson and Google announce vaccine requirements for employees. I applaud those employers who have taken steps to protect their employees, their customers, and the public from the virus. And I hope to see others join them.
Governor Pritzker: (10:59)
Most crucially, I’ll be putting out a call to all long-term care facilities and nursing homes in the state of Illinois. Your workers are on the front lines of protecting thousands of our elderly loved ones, but across the state, staff vaccination rates are dramatically lower than those of your residents. At a troubling number of facilities, staff vaccination rates are below 25%. I want to end with a message for our vaccinated residents. I know this is hard. You did the right thing for yourself, for your family, for your community. And now, because of the new Delta variant and the high number of unvaccinated people in the United States, it feels like we’re going backwards in this journey. Please remember that the vast majority of vaccinated people are safe. No vaccine is 100% effective and hearing about breakthrough cases on the news can feel scary, even when breakthroughs are rare and mild. But the likelihood of a vaccinated person testing positive for COVID-19 remains extremely low. And most importantly, these vaccines are doing what they’re designed to do, essentially to eliminate the risk of hospitalization and death.
Governor Pritzker: (12:27)
Again, to all of those who are already vaccinated, I’m going to ask you to do one more thing. Talk to someone in your life who could get the vaccine, but hasn’t yet. Please share your story with them. Share why you got vaccinated. Let them know that the vaccine is free. Let them know that they can go to their doctor, to a pharmacy, to a clinic. And if they’re home bound, someone can come and vaccinate them right there at home. Let them know that they’ll still be eligible for the $1 million Illinois vaccine lottery. And most importantly, that they’ll receive the life-saving benefits of the vaccine.
Governor Pritzker: (13:13)
We’ll get through this all together as Illinoisans, as we have in so many other circumstances, by working together. And I want to thank everybody. And with that, I’ll turn it over to our IDPH director, Dr. Ngozi Ezike. Doctor?
Dr. Ngozi Ezike: (13:36)
Good afternoon. And let me start by, thank you governor for taking these decisive steps to keep our state safe. I join millions of Illinois in Illinoisans in saluting you.
Dr. Ngozi Ezike: (13:50)
I wish the circumstances were more favorable and it’s not news to anyone. We are seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases and even more concerning, an increase in the COVID-19 hospitalizations, including among our youth. In January of this year, about five and a half percent of the cases were among those who are younger than 10 years of age. Last month, that increased to nearly 15%. Similarly, approximately 13% of cases in January were among those 10 to 19 years. And in July, that increased to 23.
Dr. Ngozi Ezike: (14:32)
We are seeing the same trend for hospitalizations. The percent of hospitalizations among those younger than 20 years old tripled from two and a half percent to 7.8%. And yes, while most children who get COVID have fewer symptoms than adults, they absolutely can still get COVID-19 and they can absolutely spread it to others. We have clearly witnessed that spread this summer throughout Illinois. Numerous cases of COVID-19 have been linked to youth camps, including cases that occurred after the child, including those who were eligible to be vaccinated, returned home with the virus and unintentionally spread it to others. And among the youth camp cases that have been sequenced, the more transmissible Delta variant has been the predominant strain. From the information gathered, vaccination status was not checked at many of these youth camps and masks were not worn while indoors. Masks are a critical tool to interrupt transmission of the virus. There is an abundance of epidemiological data that support community masking to reduce the spread of the virus. But there’s more that we can do. There is something even better than masks. Vaccination is our even stronger tool. It’s our best tool. And unfortunately, there are people under the age of 12 who don’t have access to this life-saving tool and the clinical trials for those younger than 12 are underway now. Even with the Delta variant that we’ve all been talking about, the vaccines have been proven to be effective at keeping people with COVID out of the hospital and preventing death. There’s been a lot of coverage about breakthrough hospitalizations, breakthrough deaths when someone who is fully vaccinated still ends up in the hospital or succumbs to the virus. But please understand that these instances represent only a fraction of the people who have been vaccinated.
Dr. Ngozi Ezike: (16:59)
More than 6 million people have been vaccinated in Illinois, and congratulations to those of you who made that important choice. And of those over 6 million people who have been vaccinated, there have only been 714 hospitalizations. There have been 180 deaths, but that’s roughly 0.01%. One, 100th of 1% of people who have been fully vaccinated who has been hospitalized. And three, one thousands of 1% of people who were fully vaccinated who have perished. The overwhelming majority of cases, the hospitalizations, the deaths are among those who are not vaccinated. And the majority of transmission is also among the unvaccinated. Thus, the phrase that it has become a pandemic of the unvaccinated. But the key is that we actually have the tools to turn the tide on the next wave. And that…
Dr. Ngozi Ezike: (18:03)
Turn the tide on the next wave. And that next wave wants to threaten us if we don’t avail ourselves of these tools. Let’s do what’s right, not right just for ourselves, but for our neighbors and our entire communities. Now I’ll repeat the comments in Spanish. [foreign language 00:18:20]. And with that, I will turn it back over to Governor Pritzker for questions.
Governor Pritzker: (21:17)
Thank you very much. Happy to take questions.
Governor Pritzker, [Carleliago 00:21:25], Telemundo Chicago. Are there any additional steps that will be taken for students that are maybe from sixth grade or fifth grade and below, because those are probably the under 12 year olds, to protect them in the school environment with this COVID ambiance right now?
Governor Pritzker: (21:49)
Well, to begin with, there is now universal masking for all of those children and for everybody in their schools. And so that’s a major step forward, at least in mitigations in keeping them healthy and safe. But each individual school district and school can, in addition to that, place their own mitigations in their schools. Examples being, you’ve seen plexiglass in certain circumstances, or distancing within the classrooms, although we are not requiring that, they’re making those decisions within each school, in each district.
Speaker 1: (22:23)
Governor, is the requirement the equivalent of a mandate? Would explain the difference? And what happens with the special education kids and the kids with respiratory problems? What’s going to happen to them? We have parents asking us that question. [crosstalk 00:22:40]-
Governor Pritzker: (22:39)
Sure. Let’s take the last half, and then I want you to repeat the first half. But children with medical necessities, where there are reasons why they can’t wear a mask, situations like their own respiratory issues that are beyond apart from COVID-19, where they wouldn’t be able to have anything obstructing their breathing, those are obviously situations in which a doctor’s note or there’s the ability for the school district to get reprieve for those children.
Speaker 1: (23:07)
And the first question, what was the difference between the requirement and the mandate? Is it still a mandate?
Governor Pritzker: (23:13)
This is a mandate. This is a mandate across our K-12 schools, our P-12 schools, and childcare, to make sure that we’re keeping those children, the unvaccinated, as well as the vaccinated, safe and their families importantly. Because this, as you know, this virus can be taken home fairly easily. We now know more from the CDC, from their reports.
Speaker 2: (23:33)
Governor, [crosstalk 00:23:33] there are a number of parents who are asking what has taken so long for you to act. You’ve seen the problems that have gone on at school district meetings. They’re wondering what’s taken so long, and others apparently are maybe preparing to file lawsuits to challenge the legal authority for this mandate. Can you address that?
Governor Pritzker: (23:52)
Sure. Well, first of all, there has been substantial spread across the state. And it’s important that as I watch these numbers, as the IDPH tracks this across the state, that we take action. We want to take action at the proper time. We want to make sure that we’re keeping our hospitals as open as possible, so there are beds available, even for people who might have other kinds of ailments. And so we’re doing this, I think, at the right time and making sure that as schools get back in session, that we’re limiting the spread, mitigating the spread. Sorry, you were asking about people suing.
Speaker 2: (24:31)
Yeah. There’s already talk that some parents may be looking at potentially filing lawsuits, saying that you don’t have the legal authority to make a mandate in schools like this.
Governor Pritzker: (24:41)
We have the legal authority to enforce this, and we will, if necessary. What we think is going to happen is that schools will follow this, do the right thing. Again, this is about keeping our children and their families safe. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to get every child into school every day so that they can learn properly. We left it open to school districts last year to make the kinds of adjustments that they needed to, to keep kids in school. And this year, because things are very different, now that we have a vaccine available for at least every person 12 and over, including all the people, obviously the adults that work in schools, we now have the ability to keep many of those people safe. But we also have kids who are unvaccinated. So we’re trying to do the best we can for them and their families. I know you had a question. I’ll come back to you, Amanda. Yeah.
Speaker 3: (25:37)
My question is, are you still considering, or are you at all considering, a universal mask mandate outside of school throughout the state and other buildings inside?
Governor Pritzker: (25:47)
It’s not something on the table, but obviously we monitor these numbers very closely, and we make adjustments as necessary. Amanda?
Governor, I have a couple of COVID questions, if you wouldn’t mind coming back later for non- COVID questions. But the COVID questions are, first of all, what is the recourse if you have a parent who, “I don’t want my child to be masked.” Or a teacher. Are you expecting districts to fire teachers, let go of them? What is the recourse there? And can you also address the GOP is saying that you should be taking down your first ad for re-election thing, that it is too soon to be taking a pandemic victory lap.
Governor Pritzker: (26:29)
So obviously, schools are the ones that are responsible for keeping their school environment safe. This is something that’s endeavoring. Schools can be held liable if they don’t follow the mandates that are put in place. There’s even the ability for the state to revoke recognition status for school, though I think that’s something that would happen long after other mitigation or other efforts are made to get a school to impose mitigations and to maintain the mask mandate. As far as my response-
Governor Pritzker: (27:03)
As far as my response to the question about ads, I’ll just say that we’re celebrating the fact that the people of Illinois have stepped up and are doing the right thing, following the mitigations have kept our state safe. And obviously as the virus, which is unpredictable now has a Delta variant, we’re addressing it as best we can with masks in schools, requiring people who are providing service to those who are vulnerable in the state to be vaccinated. Those are, I think, the right things to do. And nobody’s doing what they’re describing.
Governor Pritzker: (27:40)
What we’re doing is simply saying that Illinois is doing a good job of addressing the challenges that were faced by this very unpredictable virus. I think. Yeah. Sorry. I’ll just go over here and I’ll come back. Yeah.
Speaker 4: (27:53)
Governor, two questions. First, can you just elaborate a little bit more on how the state can enforce this mandate in schools? That’s question number one. Question number two is could this potentially be a first step to requiring all kids under the age of 12 or K through six kids going remote again?
Governor Pritzker: (28:17)
Again, that is not on the table. We have many different tools today than we had six or eight or 12 months. Actually, I’ll just say, eight months or 12 months ago. And that is we have vaccinations available. People should go get vaccinated. That is the most important thing you can do to keep yourself, your community, your school safe. We hope that people will take advantage of that. That will reduce the need to have masks. And indeed, that may be the reason as we see vaccines available for kids under 12. That’s one thing that we’ll take into account as we’re contemplating how long a mask mandate might need to say in place in schools.
Governor Pritzker: (29:01)
But that’s what we’re talking about today is mask mandates in schools, and to make sure we’re keeping the most vulnerable people in care of staff who should be vaccinated, making sure that they’re getting vaccinated, so we keep everybody safe.
Speaker 4: (29:16)
And then just if you could please elaborate a little bit more on enforcement …
Governor Pritzker: (29:20)
Speaker 4: (29:20)
How you plan enforce this.
Governor Pritzker: (29:20)
Sure. Well, let’s be clear. Most school districts are trying to do the right thing to begin with. They want to do the right thing and they are the ones who are on the ground addressing the kids, the parents, and anybody who doesn’t want to wear a mask. In terms of a school choosing not to do that, I told you there are two ways in which they might be these mitigations and the mandate might be enforced. One is the liability that they will suffer. They all have liability insurance. If you’re not following the state mandate, it is a reasonable that someone might file a lawsuit against a school if someone gets sick in that school as a result of a school simply not following these mitigations.
Governor Pritzker: (30:07)
That’s one, and two is ISBE, the Illinois State Board of Education has the ability to remove recognition status for a school if it isn’t following the mandates. And I don’t expect that we’ll have to go there, but that is another enforcement mechanism. Yes.
Speaker 5: (30:29)
Sorry. You say these are initial actions. We also see there’s substantial spread already going on in the state. What are the rest of the actions? Why not do it more quickly? Why not do it for all state workers [inaudible 00:30:41]?
Governor Pritzker: (30:43)
As you’ve seen, there’s a menu of options for managing through waves of this virus. And so we’re simply taking advantage of what we think will work for the most vulnerable populations to keep them safe. And again, I want to remind you, we live in a world where vaccines are readily available. Literally, if you are in this room and you haven’t been vaccinated, and I hope that’s nobody in this room, but if you haven’t been vaccinated, you can walk down the street and go to a Walgreens, a CVS, you can find the public health department and you will get vaccinated probably within the hour.
Speaker 5: (31:19)
Is there anything you can do to compel private companies in Illinois to vaccinate their workers? Is that even an option for the state?
Governor Pritzker: (31:26)
That’s not something we’re looking at. Compelling companies to do that? No. But certainly companies that are doing it, I think are doing it because they want to keep their workers safe and the rest of our community safe.
Governor Pritzker, What about a mandate to vaccinate all Illinois teachers? Would that be something in your menu of options? You were just talking about a mandate for state employees that work with vulnerable populations? I
Governor Pritzker: (31:58)
Look, adults have the ability to make the decision to go get vaccinated. We’re trying to tell them it’s time to do that. And we think that many people will. You’ve seen a rising number of vaccinations, in fact across the country and here in Illinois, as the Delta variant has threatened people. I think people see that this is the best way to stay safe, and so I believe teachers who are un-vaccinated, I don’t know how many of them there are, but I believe they will follow the same guidance.
Speaker 6: (32:30)
We’ll do two more.
Speaker 7: (32:30)
Governor, are you considering any kind of move back to phase four? Because the health metrics, as you mentioned, that got us into phase five, those are all doing in the other direction right now. Are those data points telling you that there may have to be some move to phase four?
Governor Pritzker: (32:45)
We’re no longer in the kind of mitigation plan that you’re talking about. We live in a world now where there are vaccinations available to everybody. And what we’re trying to do is address the vulnerable and make sure that everybody, wherever there is a problem, and you’ve seen there’s been a high likelihood of spread in certain areas and red alert and the other areas. And so we’re essentially focusing in on those areas and doing everything we can to get everybody vaccinated. And that’s really what our plan is right now.
Speaker 7: (33:17)
But any kind of …
Speaker 6: (33:18)
Speaker 7: (33:19)
Limit of capacity when it’s like we saw in phase four, is that on the table?
Governor Pritzker: (33:24)
Again, there’s a menu of options for mitigations, but these are the mitigations that we’re putting in place right now. This is what we think is the right thing to do to get us through this current wave. But again, we’re evaluating every day. This virus, I think I don’t need to say it again, but I will. This virus is, frankly, something that is been difficult for us to see what the trajectory is because there’ve been new variants introduced. And now we have this variant that is so much more transmissible that it literally walking into a room twice or three times as many people can get the COVID now with the Delta variant, as when we had the alpha variant.
Governor, should New York Governor Andrew Cuomo resign? Can you please also address the energy negotiations? You have both environmentalists as well as the labor unions calling on you and legislators to take the lead. They say they’re at a stalemate. There is no compromise. They want you guys involved.
Speaker 6: (34:28)
Those will be the last two.
Governor Pritzker: (34:32)
Yes. Governor Cuomo should resign. In terms of the energy legislation, we have spent more than a year on negotiating, working in working groups with all of the interests involved. This is not something that’s left to interest groups to decide. This is a decision that gets made by the legislature and by the governor. And here we are, this bill has been put together after much negotiation over many, many months. And we now have a piece of legislation this is-