Local health leaders discuss masking in schools, push for vaccinations amid Delta variant

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PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — Increasing COVID-19 cases in the Tri-County area have local health leaders issuing a call to action.

At Thursday’s COVID-19 press briefing, the first one since the last weekly press conference on June 17, health and education leaders gathered at the Peoria City/County Health Department to discuss return to school strategies and local COVID-19 numbers.

One of the biggest topics discussed was the health department’s recommendations on wearing masks in schools.

Students, teachers, and staff in the tri-county area are about a month away from the first day of school, and local health experts issued their stance on the use of masks in the buildings.

Monica Hendrickson, Public Health Administrator for the Peoria City/County Health Department, said they want local boards of education to really focus on the science and the data regarding the subject.

“The science and data says unvaccinated individuals need to be masked, not only for their own health but to further control the spread of the virus,” Hendrickson said.

Hendrickson’s advice aligns with the recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Illinois Department of Public Health. The recommendation is that all individuals ages two and older who are not fully vaccinated should wear masks indoors and socially distance at least three feet apart.

However, Hendrickson said since the school districts are local authorities, they will make the final call.

“We really hope that with not only the three local health departments but our largest healthcare systems supporting masking and students who are unvaccinated that our school districts will respond accordingly,” Hendrickson said.

Dr. George McKenna, assistant superintendent at Peoria County Regional Board of Education, said school leaders have been working tirelessly to implement strategies to keep their students, staff, and communities safe.

“Districts are considering plans to address four tiers of mitigation strategies,” McKenna said. “Vaccination, masking, social distancing, and proper hygiene.”

“In addition, they’re screening students through testing, addressing ventilation issues, communicating the need to stay home when ill, contact tracing practices, continuing their cleaning and disinfectant procedures,” Mckenna said.

But before the first bell rings, Hendrickson said the tri-county area’s positivity rate has doubled to an average of 10 cases per day.

Dr. Douglas Kasper, head of Infectious Diseases at the University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria, said more new cases are occurring in areas with low vaccinations.

“What this has to do with is the emergence of a Delta variant strain of COVID-19 with the increased transmission, especially in any person of any age who is not vaccinated,” Kasper said.

He said as the state continues to open up, as more traveling occurs, and as the return to school approaches, he’s recommending everyone who is eligible to get the vaccine, and hasn’t already, to do so.

“We need to use as evidence what we’re seeing not only in our country but across the world,” Kasper said. “In an unvaccinated population with a Delta variant of COVID-19, case rates will continue to rise. So now is the time to pursue vaccination.”

Kasper said all three FDA-approved vaccines are effective in preventing the severity and mortality of the virus.

Hendrickson also spoke on breakthrough cases in Peoria County. She said there’s been less than .5% of true breakthrough cases, and none required ICU admission.

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