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Editorial: The Columbus-Indigenous Peoples debate

updated: 10/12/2021 3:52 PM

When Gov. J.B. Pritzker laid out his mandate forcing all the state's health care workers and educators to be vaccinated or lose their jobs, there was an important asterisk attached to the order: People who were still determined not to get vaccinated could instead get tested for COVID-19 at least once a week.

At the time, it sounded like an almost-reasonable compromise, one that would allow anti-vaxxers to keep their jobs in important fields where staff shortages could ill be borne. Besides, it seemed likely that people, particularly those in health care, would over time see with their own eyes the wisdom in getting the vaccine. Moreover, the inconvenience of weekly testing could be counted on to exasperate people enough that they would get vaccinated just to give themselves some peace.

So much for keeping a good thought. It turns out that weekly testing for a lot of people isn't all that onerous anymore, as drive-up testing is available most places.

More disturbing is the news out of nursing and old people's homes. According to a Centers for Disease Control report made public on Monday, while 86.8% of nursing home residents in Illinois have been vaccinated, only 65.7% of the people who care for them have received shots.

And that's just the average. Just 257 of the state's 705 nursing homes, less than a third of the total, boast employee vaccination rates of 75% or higher. But fully 163 locations have dismal staff inoculation rates of 50% or lower. Many of them are in southern Illinois.

Is this what we really want for the most vulnerable members of our population?

The vaccine that nearly 87% of Illinois nursing home residents have taken goes a long way to protecting them from the worst of COVID-19. But it doesn't mean they can't get it. The Delta virus has shown that the vaccinated are still vulnerable to the virus, albeit usually in less virulent form. But vaccinated people can get sick -- some seriously -- and some vaccinated people will inevitably die from COVID.

Why on earth would we want our elderly and infirm to be in a position where they can't control the vaccination status of the people taking care of them? With only 65.7% of nursing home workers vaccinated, it's a pretty good chance that our elderly are being cared for by some unvaccinated caretakers.

Those of us who are walking around freely have choices. We can choose to walk among the unvaccinated or choose to avoid them. Nursing home patients are at the mercy of whoever walks into their room.

When New York mandated that health care workers be vaccinated or be fired, people got vaccinated. When the mandate went into effect on Sept. 27, 92% of New York's more than 650,000 hospital and nursing home workers had already gotten at least one dose. Forcing the issue works.

The Pritzker administration should push the Illinois mandate one step further and require nursing home workers to get vaccinated. Yes, people will quit, and that's a concern in an industry where staff shortages are chronic.

But when our elderly can no longer live at home and need the round-the-clock care that nursing homes are expert at, they and their loved ones should be assured that COVID, at least, will be kept mostly at bay.