Illinois governor requires college students, workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19

by Jeremy

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Dive Brief:

  • Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, on Thursday announced he is requiring college students and employees to be vaccinated against the coronavirus amid a national surge in cases and COVID-19 hospitalizations. 
  • Workers and students must receive the first shot of the two-dose vaccines, from Pfizer or Moderna, or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, by Sept. 5. If they do not, they must submit to routine coronavirus testing. They will be screened at minimum once a week.
  • The move prompted criticism among Republican legislators and surprise from some colleges in the state, according to local media reports.

Dive Insight:

In his announcement, Pritzker cited surging case numbers in parts of the state with low vaccination rates.

In the Southern Illinois region, which has a 44% vaccination rate, only a fraction of intensive care unit beds are available, the state said in a news release. This trend mirrors the U.S., where coronavirus counts are climbing, especially in states with slow vaccine uptake. 

In an attempt to lower the number of hospitalizations in breakthrough cases, in which even fully vaccinated individuals contract the virus, Pritzker is mandating all of the state’s healthcare workers, including employees at nursing homes, be vaccinated. The majority of breakthrough cases requiring hospitalization are in those who are immunocompromised or at least 65 years old. 

But Pritzker also extended the requirement to workers in K-12 schools and higher ed institutions, as well as college students. Those receiving two-shot doses will need to receive their second shots within 30 days of their first doses. Those who do not provide proof of vaccination and also refuse COVID-19 tests will be barred from educational facilities. Pritzker is mandating mask-wearing in all indoor settings as well.

Illinois is joining Washington state in requiring that college employees be vaccinated. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, announced that state’s requirement earlier this month.

Pritzker’s decision took some colleges aback, The Southern Illinoisan reported. Several institutions in the southern part of the state indicated they were not aware beforehand that students would be required to be vaccinated, the publication reported. 

It also spurred criticism among Republican legislators. 

State Rep. Jim Durkin, the House Republican Leader, in a letter accused Pritzker of phoning him to ask for advice on controlling the pandemic, only to move forward shortly after the call with a plan “without input.”

“You are willing to negotiate with your biggest supporters, the public-sector unions, on the pandemic response, but still will not listen to the General Assembly or the residents of Illinois most impacted by your actions,” Durkin wrote in the letter.

Policymakers in red states have started blocking vaccine mitigation efforts, including in Texas and Florida. In Florida, more people are now hospitalized and dying from COVID-19 than at any other point in the pandemic, The New York Times reported.

The American College Health Association and dozens of other higher ed groups recently released a statement calling out legislators who attempt to limit mitigation tools. They said the “restrictions undermine the ability of all organizations, including colleges and universities, to operate safely and fully at a time of tremendous unpredictability.”

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