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DeKalb County health officials say delta COVID-19 variant is here, mask up and get vaccinated

Health board members support health department’s stance in encouraging universal masking, COVID-19 vaccination

DeKALB – DeKalb County health officials said the delta variant of COVID-19 has now been confirmed locally, and as a result the department will continue to urge universal mask policies and vaccinations and encourage local elected officials to share the message.

Cindy Graves, a nurse practitioner for the DeKalb County Health Department, said during the county’s Board of Health meeting Tuesday that the delta variant of COVID-19 became the most prevalent strain of the virus in reported state and local cases, which have been rising in the previous weeks. She also said the delta variant is now in DeKalb County.

“It’s definitely here,” Graves said.

According to ever-changing guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, new K-12 school guidance advised districts to base masks on a person’s vaccination status: If they were fully vaccinated, masks were not necessary. If they weren’t fully vaccinated, guidance included a strong recommendation to continue wearing masks.

In response, local districts throughout the state have in the past weeks largely opted for optional mask-wearing, faced with mounting pressure from parent groups to not require face coverings unless necessary.

Some DeKalb County school districts – including Sycamore School District 427 and Genoa-Kingston School District 424 – recently adopted optional masking policies. The decisions came amid outcry from parents in those districts urging educators to drop masks, saying they’re not necessary or they believe mental and physical health risks of wearing masks outweigh the risk of children getting severely ill from the virus.

However, as of Tuesday afternoon, the CDC changed their guidance to strongly encourage universal mask-wearing policies in schools regardless of vaccination status, considering the recent rise in delta variant cases in the last month alone. The Illinois Department of Public Health followed suit shortly thereafter.

Lisa Gonzalez, DeKalb County public health administrator, said about 30% to 38% of the county’s vaccine-eligible population ages 12 to 17 received at least one dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, which remains the only approved vaccine for patients in that age range.

“We believe that the best way to keep kids in school and face to face learning is to wear masks and encourage that for that population,” Gonzalez said. “And so we will be making sure we continue to push that.”

Gonzalez said she is unsure what changes, if any, local school districts might make in their student mask-wearing policies with the new CDC recommendations.

“But we will be very vocal and straightforward with our recommendation that they utilize all of the prevention strategies that the CDC has recommended because we’re starting to see additional activity because of the Delta variant – and because our vaccine rate in the K through 12 population isn’t very high right now,” Gonzalez said.

Health board members agreed with Gonzalez’s recommendation.

As the board continues to work on an official statement encouraging residents to get vaccinated and for school districts to adopt universal masking policies, members also suggested approaching community leaders to take a similar stance.

Board member Dr. Paul Stromborg, who also is a physician affiliated with Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital, said politics shouldn’t matter when it comes to matters of public health and supports urging local leaders to be uniformed on their messaging.

He said he thinks people could be more motivated to follow public health guidelines to prevent another stay-in-place order or mitigations from a surge.

“I think all the local businesses must be scared to death,” Stromborg said.

Available COVID-19 vaccine opportunities

Graves said the health department continues to offer COVID-19 vaccines Monday through Friday at the department’s DeKalb campus, 2550 N. Annie Glidden Road.

She said the Johnson and Johnson vaccine is offered every weekday, with the Moderna vaccine offered on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and the Pfizer vaccine (the only one offered to those as young as 12) a on administered on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“But Tuesdays, Thursdays are definitely the most populated,” Graves said. “So we do have that – because it’s Pfizer, we are seeing a lot of kids coming in.”

Local health officials said they are anticipating more children coming into the department’s vaccine clinics with school starting in a few weeks with other annual immunizations being required.

Graves said the health department recently obtained a mobile health unit to help set up vaccination events in harder to reach areas of the county. She said health officials also continue to set up shop to administer vaccines at community events, recent ones including Juneteenth and the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce Family Fun Fest.

“We want to make sure that, that [communities like] Kingston – you know, little Kingston – know we’re paying attention and that we’re up there,” Graves said. “So we’re very cognizant of that and make sure that that’s part of our mission.”

• This story has been updated 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 28, 2021 to clarify local public health officials did not explicitly say there have been COVID-19 cases linked to the delta variant at NIU, though they discussed during the Tuesday meeting there have been recent COVID-19 cases at NIU.