IL Revises Coronavirus Tiers, Will Prioritize Inmate Vaccinations

J. Ryne Danielson
·5 min read

ILLINOIS — With the next phase of the coronavirus vaccine rollout imminent, state health officials are launching a surge staffing program to expand hospital capacity, loosening restrictions on indoor dining and group activities in several of the state's regions, and revising when some groups are set to receive their shots.

On Monday, the Illinois Department of Public Health said it would no longer include non-ICU bed availability in the metrics it uses to determine whether a region can advance to a less-restrictive tier of mitigations.

Positivity rates and hospitalizations have been falling steadily across the state for weeks; but on Friday, when Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced some regions could begin loosening restrictions, only three regions qualified. While already low, hospitalizations in more-rural regions were not falling quickly enough in proportion to available beds, while more-populous regions had more empty beds than doctors and nurses to staff them.

Officials hope a new statewide surge staffing initiative will offset reduced capacity by allowing hospitals with unstaffed beds to take more patients.

Using the new metrics, Regions 8, 9, 10 and 11 — Kane and DuPage counties, Lake and McHenry counties, suburban Cook County and the city of Chicago, respectively — will move to Tier 2. Regions 1 and 6 will move to Tier 1, and Regions 3 and 5 will return to Phase 4 of the Restore Illinois Plan.

“Hospital leaders have made clear the importance of staffing in their continued response to this pandemic and conveyed that staffing contracts will be extraordinarily valuable in their ability to meet the needs of their communities,” said IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike. “We are pleased to see most of our regions move out of Tier 3 mitigations with this change, and it is critical that we maintain this progress. With new variants of COVID-19 spreading, it is more important than ever to follow the public health guidance that keeps people safe — wear your mask and watch your distance.”

While public health officials say the new metrics will allow regions greater flexibility in lifting the most stringent restrictions, the state will continue to monitor hospital needs and test positivity in order to prevent a new surge of the virus that experts say may be coming via more-contagious variants of the virus from the United Kingdom, South Africa and elsewhere.

In order to move to Tier 2 mitigations, a region must meet the following metrics:

  • A test positivity rate ≤ 8 percent and ˂ 12 percent for three consecutive days, as measured by the seven-day rolling average; AND

  • ≥ 20 percent available staffed ICU hospital beds for three consecutive days, on a seven-day rolling average; AND

  • A sustained decrease in the number of people in the hospital with COVID-19 for seven out of 10 days, on a seven-day average.

In order to move to Tier 1 mitigations, a region must meet the following metrics:

  • A test positivity rate between 6.5 and 8 percent for three consecutive days, as measured by the seven-day rolling average; AND

  • ≥ 20 percent available staffed ICU hospital beds for three consecutive days, on a seven-day rolling average; AND

  • No sustained increase in the number of people in the hospital with COVID-19 for seven out of 10 days, on a seven-day average.

In order to move to Phase 4, a region must meet the following metrics:

  • A test positivity rate less ≤ 6.5 percent for three consecutive days, as measured by the seven-day rolling average; AND

  • ≥ 20 percent available staffed ICU hospital beds for three consecutive days, on a seven-day rolling average; AND

  • No sustained increase in the number of people in the hospital with COVID-19 for seven out of 10 days, on a seven-day average

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Prison Vaccinations

State health officials have also revised guidelines for which groups will get access to the vaccine first in Illinois. According to the health department's recently revised guidelines, the next phase of the rollout — Phase 1b — will include Illinoisans age 65 and older, front-line workers such as law enforcement, teachers, grocery store workers, bus drivers, prison staff and inmates. The next phase — Phase 1c — will include anyone between the ages of 16 and 64 with a high-risk medical condition.

The American Civil Liberties Union praised the decision to include inmates in Phase 1b — a change from previous guidance.

"We urge everyone to ignore the temptation of political attacks on this decision," the group said in a statement. "The suggestion that someone should die from COVID complications simply because they are incarcerated fails to recognize the value of human life."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks have been in prisons, where inmates can't social distance — and masks, tests and other resources have been in short supply. Outbreaks among prisoners also, invariably, spread to correctional staff and surrounding communities — often rural communities with few hospital beds — when those staff members go home to their families.

Nonetheless, Republican state Sen. Dan McConchie quickly attacked the decision.

"Why we are putting healthy prison inmates in front of people with high-risk medical conditions is something I fundamentally don't understand," he told NBC Chicago.

In a separate statement to CBS News, he said, "A 20-year-old convicted murderer who is going to be spending life in prison is going to get the vaccine faster than people who are on the outside — law-abiding citizens."

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In December, a coalition of 60 advocacy groups sent a letter to Ezike asking her to prioritize incarcerated people for access to the vaccine.

"We urge IDPH to follow the recommendations of nationally renowned public health experts and prioritize all incarcerated individuals and the staff who come in contact with them as part of Phase 1a for the COVID-19 vaccine rollout plan — treating them with the same urgency as people in other long-term congregate settings," read the letter in part.

"People and staff in these congregate environments should have the choice to receive the vaccine at the same time as nursing home residents and others living in places where social distancing is difficult or impossible."

According to statistics cited by the group, people in jail are four times as likely to catch the virus and twice as likely to die from it as those in the general population.

Phase 1b is set to begin Jan. 25 and includes about 3.2 million people.

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This article originally appeared on the Across Illinois Patch