The McLean County Board of Health began its meeting Wednesday night with a barrage of public comment.
In emailed statements to the board, several commenters demanded stronger enforcement of measures related to COVID-19 and stricter consequences for businesses and individuals that violate the rules.
Commenter Elizabeth Johnston, also a County Board member, wrote "we are currently the hot spot that no one envies."
"The opportunity to cull the spread through reliance on personal responsibility has passed and now it is time for stronger measures," Johnston wrote.
Her comments were echoed in other statements, many of which blamed the county’s recent spike in positive cases on the failure of Illinois State University students to adhere to public health guidelines.
The New York Times this week has ranked Bloomington-Normal No. 5 on a list of around 100 college communities that have emerged as pandemic hot spots since bringing students back for the fall.
ISU also has been making local headlines for large, off-campus gatherings where students openly flouted social distancing measures and mask wearing. After Normal police dispersed a party at an off-campus apartment complex on Tuesday night, ISU President Larry Dietz said the university is working to identify any students who were present.
Agreeing that pleas for personal responsibility were falling on some deaf ears, commenter Pat Peterson urged the Board of Health to work with ISU to enact consequences for offending students, including suspension, removal from campus, and fines.
McLean County Board Executive Committee member Laurie Wollrab also submitted comments to the board, asking for a “unified and strong response” to violations.
“We cannot wait for the hospitals to be overwhelmed or to hit the 8% mark to be flagged,” she wrote, referring to the positivity rate that would trigger state mitigations according to the Restore Illinois plan.
Wollrab said she hears daily from businesses in Uptown Normal that are seeing a loss of business due to surging COVID-19 numbers on campus.
ISU’s testing positivity rate (7-day rolling) currently sits at 13.7%. The university’s total of positive cases is 1,321 since the start of the semester.
Board of Health President Carla Pohl praised mayors Chris Koos of Normal and Tari Renner of Bloomington for implementing recent policies to curb large gatherings and crowding in bars, saying “all of those measures will work together to limit COVID.”
“But I also want to acknowledge Bradley and U of I (University of Illinois),” Pohl said, for the steps taken by those universities to limit gatherings. U of I has said it will remove students who violate health orders. Peoria's Bradley University, which experienced a recent spike in numbers, announced it will quarantine its entire student body for two weeks.
“I urge ISU to follow their leadership,” Pohl said.
Local businesses also are facing criticism for failing to comply with COVID-19 restrictions. Tom Anderson, the county's environmental health director, told the board McLean County has received 447 complaints to date, mostly about masks and social distancing.
Though the health department can work with businesses to provide clarity and understanding around the operating restrictions laid out in the Restore Illinois plan, it has almost no ability to enforce those restrictions.
Anderson told the board he is currently “exploring options for enforcement” through the federal Food and Drug Administration. Though the health department can’t shut down a business for refusing to comply with COVID-19 restrictions, it can revoke or suspend a food permit.
“The FDA code is a living document,” Anderson explained, and the latitude it grants to health departments to shut down a business due to an “imminent health hazard” like salmonella or e. coli could possibly be extended to include the threat of COVID-19.
And because most liquor licenses require that a portion of an establishment’s revenue come from food sales, the loss of a food permit could close down offending bars and pubs.
Anderson said other counties are currently using the FDA language to enforce health measures during the pandemic.
Though some health board members were supportive of pursuing Anderson’s exploration of the FDA code, First Assistant State’s Attorney Christopher Spanos urged caution.
“I’m not saying you can’t do it,” Spanos said. “I’m saying it would be problematic,” adding that to revoke a food permit due to COVID violations would essentially be to “close, isolate, and quarantine a business.”
“I don’t want to close businesses,” said Anderson. “Businesses are already struggling.” But he added that some businesses have received multiple complaints that the health department must respond to, but has no recourse to address.
“We have no process to issue a ticket,” he said. “So my perception is eight complaints is a lot of taxpayer money, a lot of staff time.”
Ultimately, the board recommended that Anderson and Spanos work with Health Department Administrator Jessica McKnight to further review the possible use of the FDA code to enforce COVID violations. If deemed a viable option, it would be presented to the board as a future action item.
Planning for mass vaccinations
Meanwhile, the McLean County Health Department has begun scouting possible locations for the administration of a COVID-19 vaccine. McKnight acknowledged there are “still a lot of unknowns” surrounding a potential vaccine, including when one will be approved for use.
Operation Warp Speed, a partnership between the Department of Health and Human Services and the Defense Department, has pledged to deliver 300 million doses of vaccine by January.
McKnight said her agency has been instructed by the Illinois Department of Public Health to begin preliminary planning for large-scale administering and storing of the vaccine. McLean County currently doesn’t have the necessary storage capacity, but McKnight said COVID-19 grant money has been earmarked for the purchase of additional freezers.
McKnight said even amid all of the unknowns, preparing for an eventual vaccine is an important part of the heath department’s virus response.
“In the midst of this pandemic and all that we’re doing, we’re still planning for a mass vaccination, knowing that’s going to be part of it,” she said.
More contact tracers added
McKnight also said the department has added 14 contact tracers since Aug. 24, adding with hiring continuing through September, she hopes to have 41 new tracers in place by early October.
McKnight explained the pace of hiring, saying “it’s best to bring them on in small groups.”
“Training isn’t easy,” said Pohl, adding that in addition to contact tracing, the health department is fielding COVID complaints, overseeing restaurant inspections, and dealing with emerging cases of West Nile virus.
“The staff is doing an excellent job,” Pohl said. “People need to be aware of how hard the health department is working.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated from its previous version to correct a quote attributed to County Board member Elizabeth Johnston regarding personal responsibility.
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