Gov. J.B. Pritzker allows state lawmakers to receive COVID-19 vaccinations, joining Chicago city leaders and elected officials who were already allowed doses in current rollout plan

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Alice Yin, Jamie Munks and Dan Petrella, Chicago Tribune
·7 min read
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When Illinois opened up the coronavirus vaccine to people 65 and older last week, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot rolled up her sleeve for her first dose even as some state lawmakers wondered when their turn would come.

Unlike the rest of the state, Chicago’s COVID-19 inoculation rules had allowed for city leaders and elected officials — regardless of their age or medical necessity — to receive the vaccine. Illinois’ statewide rules did not.

After initially saying state elected officials should hold off, Gov. J.B. Pritzker reversed course on Wednesday, making all 177 members of the General Assembly now eligible for the vaccine.

“At the request of members of the General Assembly, any of the 177 state legislators who wish to be inoculated will be allowed to receive their vaccine in phase 1b,” Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said. “The state of Illinois has urgent and vital business that must be addressed, and we hope that the General Assembly will engage in a robust and productive schedule in coming weeks and months.”

Across Illinois, phase 1b opened up on Jan. 25, and front-line essential workers and people 65 or older became eligible for the vaccine along with health care workers and long-term care facility residents and staffers who were allowed under the previous stage. Chicago’s eligibility rules differed to include “City government leaders and City elected officials critical to maintain continuity of governmental operations and services.”

Lightfoot, the city’s first Black female mayor, got her inoculation on Jan. 25. In front of TV cameras, the 58-year-old mayor gave a thumbs-up, saying she wanted to set an example, especially to Black and Latino communities that might be skeptical after a history of being subject to medical racism.

“To those of you who are hesitant, we are here to tell you the vaccine is safe,” Lightfoot said. “We want you to take it because it is safe and because it will save your life.”

Not including state lawmakers, about 200 government officials fall under the “continuity of government” definition under the city’s front-line worker definitions, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health. The city prioritized the officials along with about 5,100 U.S. Postal Service employees to prevent hospitalizations and death, prevent outbreaks and preserve services that allow society to function, a statement said.

“Most government workers will get vaccinated in phases 1c and 2. Only US postal service workers and a small group of City government leaders and City elected officials critical to maintaining continuity of governmental operations and services are eligible for COVID-19 vaccine during phase 1b,” the statement said. “Many elected officials and leaders in Chicago and across the country are stepping up to increase trust in vaccine and lead by example.”

It’s unclear exactly which, or how many, Chicago elected officials so far have received a COVID-19 vaccination under the city’s rules. The health department did not answer a question on which officials beside the mayor qualify. Chicago’s City Council has conducted virtual meetings since early in the pandemic.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th, who is younger than 65, received his first dose of the vaccine at the same event when Lightfoot got hers. Sawyer said at the time that he got the vaccine to follow through on his messaging that it was safe.

“As a Black man, I particularly thought it was important to see someone like myself get vaccinated because there’s a lot of discussion, justifiably so, about particularly Black man’s hesitancy about getting a vaccine,” Sawyer said before getting his vaccination.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, which state and local governments do not have to follow, recommends those in “executive, legislative, and other general government support” roles to be in phase 1c of vaccination rollout.

Despite Pritzker’s announcement Wednesday that Illinois lawmakers will be eligible to be vaccinated during the current phase of vaccinations, the governor said he still plans to wait to be inoculated.

“I’m waiting my turn. I think it’s important for many of us to set an example in that way,” Pritzker said at a news conference in Champaign. “Many legislators asked if they could be vaccinated because there is so much work that needs to be done.”

Pritzker’s office received calls from legislators about being included in Phase 1b, he said.

Multiple people who were in Springfield for the early January lame-duck session tested positive for COVID-19, including the House speaker’s chief of staff.

“It’s not something I’m choosing to do, it’s not something that the speaker of the House is choosing to do or that the Senate president is choosing to do now. We’re all waiting our turn,” Pritzker said. “But we need the state of Illinois and its legislature and its government to function well.”

Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch in a statement praised Pritzker’s move.

“I commend the Governor’s decision to allow state legislators to get the COVID-19 vaccine in the 1B phase. While part of my job as Speaker is to relay the range of opinions among all House members, it was important that this decision rest with the Governor and his team of health experts,” Welch said. “The issues and challenges facing the General Assembly are enormous, so this is a welcomed step in the interest of government functionality and safety. Whether or not to get a vaccine is a personal choice for every member, but I encourage those who are at-risk or have vulnerable family members to strongly consider it.”

Before Pritzker’s announcement, state Rep. Daniel Didech, D-Buffalo Grove, said lawmakers have a lot to deal with this upcoming session and thought colleagues traveling from all across Illinois to Springfield could inadvertently cause outbreaks.

“This has been framed as politicians jumping to the front of the line, but it’s really not about that,” Didech said in a phone interview. “It’s us being responsive to our constituents who want us to get back to work and doing it in a safe way that we’re not causing superspreader events.”

Cook County Commissioner Sean Morrison, who is also the county’s Republican Party chairman, said last week that elected officials should not seek special benefits because that could alienate the public — and that includes vaccine priority. He said, however, that he understood Lightfoot was trying to set an example as mayor of Chicago, so he doesn’t ding her for that.

Morrison, a resident of suburban Palos Park, is not eligible for the vaccine right now and said he is content waiting. Elected officials and their staff working for the county will have their turn in the upcoming phase 1c, according to a statement from the Cook County Department of Public Health.

“I don’t think a politician should ever put themselves above their constituents and above the general public at any time,” Morrison said.

But Illinois Republican Party Chairman Tim Schneider in a written statement disagreed with Pritzker’s move.

“For months, thousands of Illinois workers have been going to work and diligently abiding by safety precautions as they performed their jobs,” Schneider said. “Springfield politicians are capable of doing the same and waiting in line like everyone else to receive their vaccine. Despite some of them believing so, Illinois legislators are not more important or worthy than the rest of us.”

The Illinois House’s lame-duck session last month was held in the cavernous downtown Springfield convention center to ensure proper social distancing. Members and staff were required to wear masks except when eating or drinking, but enforcement was lax, despite repeated reminders during debates.

After a significantly shortened legislative session in 2020, Welch canceled most of the days that lawmakers were set to be in Springfield this month. The Illinois House will return to the Capitol on Feb. 10 to vote on whether to allow remote legislative work, with a limited amount of people allowed on the House floor at a given time to allow for physical distancing.

Welch has said he expects that House committees will largely meet remotely for the remainder of February and March.

ayin@chicagotribune.com

jmunks@chicagotribune.com

dpetrella@chicagotribune.com