Pritzker urges shots and masks to guard against looming spike of highly contagious COVID-19 variant: ‘This is very real’

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Monday urged unvaccinated Illinoisans to roll up their sleeves and get the shots, warning of a “growing presence” of a highly contagious COVID-19 variant that he and the state’s public health officials expect to dominate cases statewide by the fall.

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Wearing a face mask before he spoke, Pritzker made his plea at an unrelated news conference on the West Side, telling residents not to let their guard down in the face of the expected spread of the Delta variant in Illinois.

“The lessons here at home and across the world are a harbinger of what could happen here, particularly in low vaccinated areas, if we don’t see a higher uptake of the vaccine across Illinois,” Pritzker said.

“This is very real. I implore all residents: If you have friends and family on the fence, share with them the life-saving benefits of these free vaccines and encourage them to remain masked until they are fully vaccinated.”

Pritzker said he decided to wear a face covering before speaking at the podium in the North Lawndale neighborhood “out of an abundance of caution.”

“I think when we leave our home every day, I would encourage everybody — whether you’re vaccinated or not — to bring your mask with you,” Pritzker said. “You know what the guidelines are across the state of Illinois, and use your mask accordingly.”

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker listens at the James R. Thompson Center in the Loop in March.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

The Delta variant is a highly contagious, and potentially more severe, strain of the coronavirus first discovered in India.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has labeled it a “variant of concern,” meaning “there is evidence of an increase in transmissibility, more severe disease … significant reduction in neutralization by antibodies generated during previous infection or vaccination, reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines.”

At a briefing in Geneva, Switzerland, on Friday, Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization, called the Delta variant the “most transmissible” variant identified so far.

Health officials have previously said vaccines are effective against that variant and Pritzker reiterated that Monday, saying the shots are “the best tool that we have to protect one another.”

Just 84 cases of the Delta variant had been reported in Illinois through Sunday – the fewest of any of the six variants — but the governor said he and his public health team “expect it to dominate our cases statewide by the fall.”

After seeing daily averages for vaccinations well above 100,000 in the spring, the state health officials reported a seven-day rolling average of 43,219 vaccines administered. So far, a little over 48% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated.

Though vaccines may help prevent a person from catching the coronavirus — or having a serious case — it still possible to be hospitalized, or die, from the virus. Figures updated last Wednesday from the state’s department of public health show 466 fully vaccinated people have been hospitalized due to COVID-19 —124 fully vaccinated people have died of the virus or from complications.

Those cases are called vaccine breakthroughs, a term the state uses for people who test positive for COVID-19 at least 14 days after being fully vaccinated and did not test positive in the previous 45 days.

Pritzker removed the state’s masking mandate and social distancing guidelines in May after the CDC released updated guidance that allowed for fully vaccinated people to safely stop wearing masks outdoors and in the majority of indoor settings.

The organization still called for masks in crowded indoor settings — such as buses, planes, hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters.

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