Governor ends debate on masks in school

Pritzker announces mandate for schools as one of three strategies designed to fight spread

Despite Gov. JB Pritzker’s announcement Wednesday mandating masks for all children in preschool through high school, Hinsdale’s Dr. Uma Levy said she doesn’t regret starting a petition calling for masks in District 181 schools.

“I’m still happy that I did it because there have been instances where the board and the district have kind of gone against recommendations or changed their mind,” said Levy, who has two children in Community Consolidated Elementary District 181. “I don’t think it was a wasted effort and it is overall great news.”

Her petition garnered 710 signatures in its first eight days, but it also made her a target for those who don’t want their kids wearing a mask.

“I have had to endure a lot of attacks through social media and online and email regarding this issue,” said Levy, who practices with Northwestern Medicine Pediatrics in Glen Ellyn. “The majority of arguments I’m hearing appear to be very emotionally based and not really based on scientific evidence.”

She acknowledged that people don’t enjoy wearing a mask.

“It’s not fun. It’s an inconvenience. I’m just happy a lot of people agree it’s the right thing to do right now,” she said.

In his Wednesday afternoon press briefing, Pritzker pointed to a 10-fold increase in positive cases since that number hit its lowest level earlier this summer. Hospitalizations and ICU rates have doubled in the past month, he said, adding that children are not immune.

Given the lower rates of vaccination among teens ages 12 to 17 and the lack of a vaccine for children under 12, he said he is requiring all schools, preschools and daycare facilities to adopt the CDC guidance and require masking for all.

“My goal has always been to safely bring all kids back into the classroom at the start of the school year and, crucially, to keep them there,” Pritzker said.

Masks will be required for all indoor recreation and sports activities as well.

He also is requiring vaccinations for all state employees who work in congregate facilities such as veterans homes, psychiatric hospitals and correctional facilities, effective Oct. 4. Finally, a universal mask mandate is in effect for all long-term care facility workers, residents and visitors.

Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, offered more detailed numbers concerning youth who are contracting COVID-19 and landing in the hospital.

“They can absolutely get COVID-19 and they can absolutely spread it to others,” Ezike said. “Masks are a critical tool to interrupt transmission of the virus.”

Levy noted the delta variant is as contagious as chicken pox.

“I think it’s very important for people to keep in mind that we are not over this pandemic,” Levy said. “The delta variant is a game-changer.”

What is the delta variant?

The delta variant is a mutation of the original virus and has a different genetic makeup. Viruses often mutate, explained Dr. Bela Nand, chief medical officer at Amita Health Adventist Medical Center Hinsdale.

A mutation can occur when an error occurs while a virus is making a copy of itself. As those errors accumulate, they change the surface of the original virus and can diminish the efficacy of vaccines.

“We know this because we study it every year through the influenza virus,” Nand said. “That is why the flu shot has to be updated every year.”

A different type of mutation occurs when two viruses go into one human cell and combine to produce a totally different virus with a different genetic makeup. These abrupt changes are called novel viruses.

The delta variant, first identified in India in December, is an example of this type of antigenic shift.

“Within a matter of months, this particular variant has spread over 98 countries around the world. That’s how contagious it is,” Nand said, noting that 80 percent of the virus strains now in the U.S. are thought to be the delta variant.

Individuals are not informed whether they have the delta variant when the take a COVID-19 test, but the Illinois Department of Public Health tracks the number on its website at Out of 10,557 cases on Monday, only 840 were identified as the delta variant.

“Strangely enough, in Illinois delta is not the predominant virus strain at this point,” Nand said.

But that doesn’t really matter, she added.

“We just have to do the same precautions and the same vaccines and the same tests,” she said.

The bad news is the delta variant is twice as contagious as the original virus, Nand explained, and can be transmitted by a vaccinated person to someone who has not been vaccinated. The good news is the likelihood of a breakthrough infection is very small, and those who contract it typically aren’t having symptoms.

A day before Pritzker made his announceent, she said she supported the CDC guidance calling for people to wear masks even if they have been vaccinated.

“Whether you are vaccinated or not vaccinated, wear the mask,” Nand said Tuesday.

That’s 110 percent true for schoolchildren, she said.

“Everybody should wear masks,” she reiterated. “Why should we put our children at risk, even if there is a very low chance they could get it?”

She also encouraged people not to let COVID-19 eclipse general health concerns, such as chest pain or shortness of breath.

“Don’t ignore those things. Get your health back on track and come to the hospital,” she said, noting most people who work in hospitals are vaccinated and all are wearing masks.

“Don’t ignore your health as you are fighting a pandemic,” she advised.

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean