CAPITOL RECAP: Pritzker mandates masks indoors, vaccines for health care workers, educators

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SPRINGFIELD – The statewide mask mandate indoors is back, and educators and health care professionals will be required to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, Gov. JB Pritzker announced Thursday, Aug. 26, amid an ongoing surge in the pandemic that first led to stay-at-home orders and other mitigations in March 2020.

Beginning Monday, Aug. 30, people will be required to wear masks indoors, Pritzker announced.

The vaccine requirement, which goes into effect Sept. 5, will apply to “all P-12 teachers and staff, all higher education personnel, all higher education students, and health care workers in a variety of settings, such as hospitals, nursing homes, urgent care facilities and physician’s offices,” Pritzker said at a news conference in Chicago.

“Effective Sept. 5, individuals working in these settings who are unable or unwilling to receive their first dose of vaccine will be required to get tested for COVID-19 at least once a week, and IDPH and (the Illinois State Board of Education) may require more frequent testing in certain situations, like in an outbreak,” he said.

Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said the state is seeing 220 hospital admissions per day, a number on par with a surge in May. Pritzker said 98 percent of cases, 96 percent of hospitalizations and 95 percent of deaths since January have been among unvaccinated people.

While vaccines are the best defense, Ezike said, “wearing a mask continues to be one of the simplest, cheapest ways to reduce the spread of COVID-19.”

Intensive care bed availability in southern Illinois is at 3 percent, Pritzker said.

“That’s because the regions with the lowest vaccination rates are the regions where there are fewer hospitals, and lower hospital capacity,” Pritzker said. “And those hospitals are sometimes the least well equipped to handle cases as they become more acute.”

He added, “We are continuing to rely on experts at the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and (Illinois Department of Public Health), but you don’t need to be an epidemiologist to understand what’s going on here. This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

The current vaccination rates – nearly 53 percent of the state’s population is vaccinated – “are not enough to blunt the ferocity of the delta variant,” which has led to hospitals “again fighting the battle that we had hoped would be behind us by now.”

Republicans, meanwhile, continue to call on the governor to further involve the General Assembly in his COVID-19 response.

REDISTRICTING: Voting rights advocates and minority community members urged Illinois lawmakers on Thursday, Aug. 26, to take more time in redrawing legislative district maps so the general public can have more time to study whatever new maps will be proposed.

“We’re joining other advocates today in asking for more time to provide an efficient analysis of the 2020 census numbers, and to present a map to this committee and to the legislature that can be considered when making these adjustments,” said former state Sen. Miguel del Valle Jr., who is now with the Latino Policy Forum.

His comments came during a joint hearing in Chicago of the House and Senate Redistricting Committees just days ahead of a special session of the General Assembly on Tuesday, Aug. 31, to redraw state legislative district maps for a second time.

Roberto Valdez, also of the Latino Policy Forum, urged lawmakers not to vote on any new maps before the general public has had a reasonable amount of time to review any new proposal.

Lawmakers approved new maps in May, and Gov. JB Pritzker signed those into law. But those maps were based on population estimates using five years’ worth of data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey because the release of official, neighborhood-level data from the 2020 U.S. Census was delayed by several months.

Those detailed numbers were finally released Aug. 12, and many analysts have said it shows the districts lawmakers approved in May were vastly unequal in population, thereby violating the U.S. Supreme Court’s “one person one vote” standard.

But while the Census Bureau has released detailed population figures, it still has not released detailed racial, ethnic and other demographic data that some advocates argued should be factored into the map-making process.

The mapmaking process that lawmakers have used is already the subject of two federal lawsuits being heard by a three-judge panel in Chicago. One filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, another filed by Republican leaders in the General Assembly.

Republicans on the committees, meanwhile, alleged Thursday that Democrats who control the General Assembly have already started drawing new maps behind closed doors and that the public hearings now taking place are only for show.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has announced new safety protocols that also include a renewed statewide mandate for masks to be worn indoors.



BILL SIGNINGS: Gov. JB Pritzker has been steadily acting on more than 660 bills sent to him by the General Assembly this year ahead of a weekend deadline for bill action.

On Wednesday, Aug. 25, he signed House Bill 2595, which beginning in 2023 requires insurers to provide coverage to all medically necessary mental health care in Illinois, including for mental, emotional, nervous or substance use disorders. 

He also signed House Bill 2784 to create a mental health first responder system in coordination with an emergency mental and behavioral health phone system that was created by federal law.

The Division of Mental Health of the state’s Department of Human Services is preparing to coordinate mental and behavioral health services to all Illinoisans as part of the federally mandated adoption of the 988 phone number. The number is expected to go online by July 2022.

The new law will require 911 call center operators to coordinate with the mobile mental and behavioral health services that are being established through the Division of Mental Health, which is also establishing regional advisory committees in each Emergency Medical Services region.

Sex education: Pritzker on Friday signed Senate Bill 818, which creates a new “personal health and safety” curriculum for grades K-5, and a “sexual health education” curriculum for grades 6-12. The bill received resistance from Republican lawmakers and religious groups for its “culturally appropriate” guidelines, including education on gender identities, different types of families, sexual orientation, consent and a woman’s options during pregnancy.

Parents can opt their students out of the coursework without penalty, and each individual school district may determine whether it will teach sex education. If a district offers the subject, the curriculum must use all or part of the curriculum established by the bill.

The actual statewide curriculum would be developed by the Illinois State Board of Education by Aug. 1, 2022.

But many of the guidelines contained in the statute require that sex ed curricula be aligned with National Sex Education Standards, an initiative by non-government organizations to provide “guidance on essential minimum core content and skills needed for sex education that is age-appropriate.”

The guidelines, for example, require students by the end of second grade be able to define consent, personal boundaries, child sexual abuse and how to report child sexual abuse to a trusted adult.

Sexting education: The governor also signed House Bill 24, requiring classes that teach sex education to include an age-appropriate discussion regarding sexting. That discussion would include information on possible consequences of sharing, possessing or forwarding sexually explicit content, as well as the importance of internet safety. It took effect immediately.

Construction transparency: Pritzker signed House Bill 253, which requires the Illinois Department of Transportation to establish and implement a transportation performance program for state projects. IDOT is also required to develop a statewide highway system asset management plan aimed at preserving and improving roadways while reducing costs. The department is instructed to develop a performance-based process for selecting which projects will be prioritized. The bill passed both the House and Senate with unanimous, bipartisan support. It applies after January 2022.   

Journalism task force: Pritzker signed Senate Bill 134, creating a Local Journalism Task Force made up of 13 individuals representing print and broadcast media, journalism schools, and state and local government. The group will study communities underserved by local journalism, as well as reviewing print and digital business models, the impact of social media and how to improve news access. It takes effect January 2022.

Underage e-cig sales: Pritzker signed Senate Bills 512 and 555, prohibiting e-cigarette and vaping marketing that targets children and ensuring vape shop compliance with the state’s minimum purchasing age of 21. The law allows underage individuals to test a retailer’s compliance as part of a compliance check in conjunction with law enforcement. They will go into effect January 2022.

Maternal health: One Pritzker amendatory veto aims to fix a technical issue on a bill he noted he supports. The measure, Senate Bill 967, will expand the current Illinois Medicaid plan “so that individuals who don’t qualify for full benefit Medicaid still have coverage for preventive contraceptive care and associated screenings related to reproductive well-being,” according to the governor’s office.

The bill passed unanimously, so it shouldn’t be difficult for sponsors to find the votes to accept the amendatory veto, which changes only an effective date.

State Sen. Cristina Castro, D-Elgin, the bill’s Senate sponsor, noted in a news release when the bill passed that it also “would provide support for pregnant and new mothers for pregnancy-related condition, including mental health and substance use disorders by requiring private insurance plans to cover postpartum complications up to one year after delivery among other requirements.”

Pollution control: While lawmakers passed House Bill 3190 to limit disposal by “incineration” of certain substances, Pritzker said in a veto message the definition of “incineration” is too broad, creating unforeseen increases to greenhouse gas emissions. He urged lawmakers to pass another bill with the same intent but clearer language.

Wetland protection: Pritzker vetoed Senate Bill 1770, which exempts construction within a 6-mile radius of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers confluence from the provisions of the Interagency Wetland Policy Act of 1989. He said while he’s a strong supporter of a port district project in the area, the bill “would unnecessarily turn the determination of appropriate wetland mitigation over to the Federal Government by severely restricting the State of Illinois’ involvement in the process.”

Duplicative bill: He also vetoed House Bill 1966, noting in his veto message that he already signed Senate Bill 1646, a “similar bill with more expansive provisions” which extends an application deadline pertaining to members of the Teachers’ Retirement System at a private school recognized by the Illinois State Board of Education.

AMBULANCE CARVEOUT: Stakeholders are calling on Gov. JB Pritzker to sign a bill that passed the General Assembly unanimously and would remove non-emergency ambulance services from the state’s Medicaid managed care program in favor of a fee-for-service model.

While an association group representing ambulance services says House Bill 684 is needed to counter arbitrary denials of claims by private insurers, the governor’s office and the state agency that oversees Medicaid expressed “serious concerns for patient safety and cost” as Pritzker continues to review the bill.

While the bill is a targeted carveout of ambulance services from the state’s Medicaid managed care program, or the privatization of Medicaid, it marks the latest catalyst for debate over the effectiveness of that program which was greatly expanded in 2017 under former Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Chris Vandenberg, president of the Illinois State Ambulance Association, said in a phone call Monday the bill was in response to the “arbitrary” denial of ambulance claims by Medicaid managed care organizations, or MCOs.

MCOs are private insurance companies that contract with the state to manage the care of individuals enrolled in Medicaid. Among other things, that involves working with patients to make sure they receive routine exams and preventive care, and coordinating services provided by their primary physicians and other specialists.

But Vandenberg charged that leads to MCOs padding profits through denial of claims.

Putting ambulances back in the fee-for-service system would allow providers to submit claims directly to the state Department of Healthcare and Family Services, which Vandenberg said would provide predictability and certainty to the billing process.

But Jamie Munks, a spokesperson for HFS, said in a statement the department “remains strongly opposed” to the ambulance carveout, “because it has the potential to negatively affect the quality of service, create longer wait times for medical transports and payment delays for providers, and could create confusion for customers and providers.”

Pritzker spokesperson Jordan Abudayyeh said in a statement the governor “will take the appropriate action” before this weekend’s deadline, but, “The administration is concerned that this legislation has the potential to disrupt care and reduce the quality of provided services to some of the most vulnerable Illinoisans.”

EVICTION MORATORIUM: Gov. JB Pritzker extended the state’s stay on enforcement of residential evictions for “covered persons” who have lost income or faced greater expenses or hardships due to the COVID-19 pandemic last week.

That order, which is in effect until Sept. 18 when the latest 30-day disaster declaration expires, states “All state, county, and local law enforcement officers in the State of Illinois are instructed to cease enforcement of orders of eviction for residential premises entered against a Covered Person, unless that person has been found to pose a direct threat to the health and safety of other tenants or an immediate and severe risk to property.”

“Covered persons” must fill out, and landlords must make tenants aware of, a “declaration” form available through the Illinois Housing Development Authority certifying that they are covered under the executive order.

The new order added a section clarifying that nothing in the order “shall preclude a person or entity with a legal right to pursue an eviction” from challenging the truthfulness of a tenant’s declaration in court.

IDES OFFICES REOPEN: As of Thursday, Aug. 26, select Illinois Department of Employment Security offices have opened for appointment-only in-person services for the first time since the pandemic led to a statewide stay-at-home order in March 2020, which has since expired.

Individuals can call the IDES scheduling hotline at 217-558-0401 to make an appointment at one of four locations during the first phase of reopening in Rockford, Harvey, Champaign or Mt. Vernon.

Twenty-minute appointments will be available Monday through Friday between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. Visitors will be afforded a 10-minute grace period, according to IDES.  

The IDES website is also still open for claims, and callbacks with an expert can be scheduled by calling 800-244-5631. More offices will open in a “phased” approach in the coming days and weeks, according to IDES.

UNEMPLOYMENT UPDATE: The state saw 22,258 first-time unemployment claims during the week ending Aug. 21, an increase of 21 percent from the week prior. The number of weeks claimed for the most recent period was 186,107, a decrease of 9 percent from the week prior.

The number of nonfarm jobs increased in 13 of 14 metropolitan regions for the month of July compared to one year ago, according to preliminary data from IDES and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Jobs in the Rockford area remained flat from one year ago, while the Chicago-Naperville-Arlington Heights area added 148,800 nonfarm jobs. The Lake County area added 16,400 jobs, while other regions ranged from 800 added jobs in the Bloomington area to 8,100 added jobs in the Elgin area.

For July, Illinois’ unemployment rate was 7.1 percent, trailing the U.S. as a whole, which was at 5.4 percent.

Added federal benefits, meanwhile, are set to expire on Sept. 4. That includes Pandemic Unemployment Assistance which went to independent contractors such as ride share drivers who are normally not eligible for assistance; Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation which offered an added $300 weekly payment; extended benefits beyond the weeks normally offered; and mixed benefits for those who were self-employed and also receiving a check from an employer. 

5 things to know about new Illinois mask, vaccine rules


OUTDOORS

"While face coverings are not required outdoors, masks are strongly encouraged in crowded outdoor settings like festivals and concerts as well as for activities that require close contact with people who are not vaccinated," the governor’s office



VACCINES FOR HEALTH CARE WORKERS

All health care workers, including workers at public and private nursing homes, must get vaccinated. The vaccine has been available for health care and nursing home workers since Dec.15.



VACCINES FOR EDUCATORS AND STUDENTS

​Teachers and staff at pre-kindergarten-12 schools as well as personnel and students at higher education institutions are required to get the vaccine. They must get the first dose of a two-dose vaccination series or a single-dose vaccination by Sept. 5. Second doses of the vaccine must be received by 30 days after the first dose. The COVID-19 vaccine has been open to teachers since Jan. 25.




NAM Y. HUH, ASSOCIATED PRESS



THOSE WHO DON’T GET VACCINATED

"Workers who do not receive the vaccine or those who opt out for medical reasons or based on a sincerely held religious belief must follow a routine testing schedule to detect cases early and prevent further spread," the governor’s office said. Testing will be required a minimum of once per week in schools and health care facilities. 

Health care, school workers, and higher education personnel and students attending in-person classes who do not provide proof of vaccination will be prevented from entering health care and educational facilities unless they follow the required testing protocol. 




DAVID ZALUBOWSKI, ASSOCIATED PRESS



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August 29, 2021 at 09:13AM

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