2 Illinois counties are having opposing results in controlling the pandemic

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Here in the US, we are experiencing one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks yet. And we’re going to zoom in on Illinois this morning, which is one of the states that is increasing in cases. We’ll hear from the state’s health director in a moment, but first on a debate about how to respond. In some parts of Illinois, local leaders do not endorse guidelines from state health officials. Christine Herman from the member station WILL reports.

CHRISTINE HERMAN, BYLINE: In Winnebago County, on the north end of the state, Sandra Martell Public Health Authority has been threatened with lawsuits from bar owners who continue to provide indoor services in violation of the governor’s orders for the area. At a press conference this week, she pleaded with companies to stop her agency from spending valuable resources on overseeing the controversial mandate.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE PRESS CONFERENCE)

SANDRA MARTELL: Our team spends more time doing this than I really think we’d like to spend our resources on public health.

HERMAN: Sandra Martell faces a dilemma. For example, she can order a bar to be closed, but if the police don’t support her, nothing more happens. And the local sheriff and local politicians have publicly encouraged companies to defy state orders. Meanwhile, COVID cases, hospital admissions, and deaths continue to rise. Two hundred miles south, in Champaign County, Julie Pryde, director of public health, sees it day and night.

JULIE PRYDE: In Champaign, where I have a lot of support, this job is tough enough. I can’t imagine doing it where you’re fighting yours – the people in your church. It is terrible. And we’re losing public health people across the country.

HERMAN: Pryde says early preventive steps in coordination with other local units have saved lives in Champaign. The University of Illinois campus runs an extensive coronavirus testing program that is mandatory for all students and staff. And at the beginning of the semester, bars and restaurants in the campus area willingly close for weeks beyond the state mandate. The death rate in Champaign County is now less than a quarter that of Winnebago.

In Illinois, like everywhere else, public health advice has become a political goal, part of the culture war. This makes the work of the health authorities much more difficult and, according to the latest figures, could endanger more people.

For NPR News, I’m Christine Herman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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