Governors Eric Holcomb of Indiana and J.B. Pritzker of neighboring Illinois have one thing in common when it comes to their contrasting approaches to curbing COVID-19’s latest surge.
Large swaths of residents in both states adamantly oppose their pandemic mitigation policies.
The Republican Holcomb and Democrat Pritzker have used different tactics to a shared crisis. COVID-19 cases have surged in Indiana and Illinois, along with the rest of the country, as the virus’ more transmissible Delta variant rapidly spread in July and August. Illinois experienced 25,636 new COVID-19 cases and 176 additional deaths in the past week, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. Hospitalizations and deaths have risen since last month, too. On Monday, a 20-county region in southern Illinois had just one open ICU bed, NPR Illinois reported.
On Wednesday, Indiana recorded more than 5,000 new cases in a 24-hour period for the first time since January. On Friday, state Health Commissioner Kris Box and Department of Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Lindsay Weaver warned Hoosiers in a livestreamed news update that the surge will worsen if residents fail to use the proven tools to reduce infections — face masking in public spaces and getting vaccinated. Hospitals are already postponing elective and non-emergency procedures to accommodate COVID-19 patients, and health-care workers are beyond exhausted, the two doctors said.
The scenarios are similar on both sides of the state line. The stances by Holcomb and Pritzker are not so similar.
Holcomb has supported school districts, universities, businesses and local governments that are requiring people to wear face masks in their facilities, but he has no plans to impose a statewide order. Likewise, the Hoosier governor recommends eligible residents get vaccinated, and he supports vaccination requirements by businesses, but not by public institutions such as colleges and K-through-12 schools.
The pace of vaccinations in Indiana — once stalled as the virus slowed in early summer — has increased since the surge. Still, only 52.5% of Hoosiers were fully vaccinated as of noon Friday, according to state statistics. In some sectors, the vaccination rates are even lower. The five-county region surrounding Terre Haute ranges from 47% of the population fully vaccinated in Vigo County to 39.8% in Parke.
Pritzker went beyond Holcomb’s less restrictive approach. The Illinois governor on Thursday reinstated a mask mandate for residents 2 years and older in public indoor spaces. Pritzker also announced a requirement for all teachers and employees at public and private schools, colleges and universities; health care workers; and college students to get their first vaccination by Sept. 5 or submit to weekly COVID-19 tests. Pritzker does not want hospitals and their staffs overwhelmed by the surge, and rebuked misinformation spread incessantly on social media.
“[Health care workers have] spent 18 months on the frontlines fighting this virus,” Pritzker said in a news conference. “The tool to bring an end to the pandemic — vaccines — is readily available, but your neighbors aren’t taking it. Many because they’re being misled.”
Holcomb could not attempt such a policy in red-state Indiana, where the General Assembly banned in April state or local entities from requiring immunization passports. Still, Holcomb has shown confidence in public health professionals and acted accordingly, unlike some irresponsible governors in Southern states.
Both governors want the same result — more residents getting vaccinated and masking up to quell this preventable new wave of COVID-19 cases. The policies of both governors sparked backlash. Holcomb’s decision to leave decisions to locals simply relocated masking protests from the Statehouse to school board meetings.
Regardless, if people do not start masking and getting vaccinated, everyone in Illinois and Indiana could face a heartbreaking autumn.
“The next two to four weeks, maybe even as long as six weeks, things are going to get worse if Hoosiers do not start wearing masks to prevent transmission and more Hoosiers do not get vaccinated,” Box, Indiana’s health commissioner, said Friday.
Which governor’s approach will prove successful? Let us hope they both do.