Phase 5 of Illinois' reopening plan was set to begin once a vaccine or highly effective treatment became widely available.
With vaccinations for coronavirus in Illinois increasing, and eligibility expanding, that day is inching closer, but according to Gov. J.B. Pritzker we're not there yet.
"You know, I've said from early on that what we need is an effective vaccine that we can widely distribute and a very effective or a very effective treatment that we could widely distribute and we're getting there," Pritzker said Wednesday. "I mean... about one in seven Illinoisans already has their first dose in their arms. We need to get closer to herd immunity for everybody to feel, you know, that we're beyond phase four and for us to actually be able to reopen everything entirely."
Herd immunity is defined by the World Health Organization as "when a population is immune either through vaccination or immunity developed through previous infection," though the group notes that for coronavirus such immunity "should be achieved by protecting people through vaccination, not by exposing them to the pathogen that causes the disease."
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The exact amount of herd immunity necessary to reopen further remains unclear, particularly as concerns rise over variants of the virus emerging in the U.S. and around the world and whether the current vaccines will continue to offer protection.
"We are still learning about immunity to COVID-19," WHO reports. "Most people who are infected with COVID-19 develop an immune response within the first few weeks, but we don’t know how strong or lasting that immune response is, or how it differs for different people. There have also been reports of people infected with COVID-19 for a second time. Until we better understand COVID-19 immunity, it will not be possible to know how much of a population is immune and how long that immunity last for, let alone make future predictions."
Illinois recently lifted its tiered mitigation plan, bringing all of its regions back to Phase 4 guidelines as cases and hospitalizations continue to steadily decline in the state. The move to Phase 4 brought back indoor dining and reopened several businesses, while expanding capacity limits in others.
"As for now, as you know, we've not had a stay-at-home order since back in April and May," Pritzker said. "And we have in fact, you know, restaurants are open, bars are open all across the state of Illinois, gyms are open, we have sports running in our schools and so on. Not to the large extent that we'd all like. We'd all like to, I think, rip off the masks that we're all wearing every day, and, you know, we'll get there, but it's going to be... we have to get vaccines into people's arms."
The first coronavirus vaccinations were administered in Illinois in December as health care workers and long-term care facility residents and staff began receiving doses.
Since then, the state entered its next phase of vaccine rollout, called Phase 1B, opening up vaccines to frontline essential workers and residents age 65 and older.
On Thursday, that group expanded to include people age 16 and older with certain high-risk medical conditions and comorbidities. Chicago, along with several suburbs and health care systems, opted to not enter the expanded phase, citing limitations with supply.
"We're not ready at this point ," Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said Tuesday.
According to Arwady, more than 950,000 Chicago residents would become eligible if the city expanded Phase 1B under the state's guidelines.
"We cannot add a million people to the about almost a million people including the 1A, who are already in competition for the existing doses," she said. "It'll just make everybody more frustrated. So as we have more vaccine, we definitely will be opening up and go from there."
Pritzker said he was optimistic as the state's doses continue to increase and expressed hope with a third potential vaccine nearing approval.
"That will add more to our vaccine doses available as Illinois expands our eligible population to the most medically vulnerable in accordance with the CDC guidelines," Pritzker said.