McLean County Board Chairman John McIntyre defended the county’s coronavirus response on Tuesday amid large spikes in COVID-19 cases on the Illinois State University campus, and suggested some of the criticism was politically motivated.
“I’m getting a little tired of the criticism of our health department,” McIntyre told members of the County Board Executive Committee during a virtual meeting. “They’ve done a wonderful job. Those people work hard. To sit around and throw arrows at them and say, 'They failed, they haven’t done their job,' that’s ridiculous.”
McIntyre, a Republican from Normal, didn’t specifically address what criticism he was referring to, but a number of Democrats on the County Board said during a recent committee meeting the county had “lost control” of COVID-19.
The county’s COVID-19 caseload has doubled to more than 2,600 in the last two weeks, due largely to college students returning to Bloomington-Normal. A bulk of the new cases have been among people ages 18 to 29.
While the county’s number of COVID hospitalizations remains in single digits, the rising positivity rate has pushed McLean County into a warning designation with the Illinois Department of Public Health.
In response, the Town of Normal has approved tougher social distancing restrictions in and around the ISU campus to try to limit the virus’ spread. Also, the City of Bloomington has suspended shuttle buses to limit the number of young adults traveling in large groups to downtown bars and restaurants.
County Board Executive Committee member Susan Schafer, a Bloomington Republican, said even if ISU decided to close its campus, many students still would have returned to Bloomington-Normal because they already had signed leases to live off-campus.
“I think that we are seeing this because of more younger people being here in the community than in the past, but I don’t think there’s anything we could have done to prevent that kind of thing,” Schafer said.
Executive Committee member Laurie Wollrab, a Normal Democrat, said the county needs public messaging that goes beyond personal responsibility to more effectively contain the spread of COVID-19.
She suggested the county push ISU to take a tougher stance on people who ignore the protocols, similar to what the University of Illinois has done. The U of I has said it will remove students who violate coronavirus health orders.
“It’s a very, very, very strong message to their students about them having to pay attention to all of the rules, or they are going to take them out of the university,” Wollrab said. “We need to get together, have one strong voice of how we can protect our community before this becomes absolutely rampant because that’s about where we are at now.”
County Administrator Camille Rodriguez told the committee the McLean County Health Department (MCHD) has hired and is training about half of the 40 additional contact tracers the Illinois Department of Public Health is paying for, but stressed much of the county’s success in containing the coronavirus will depend on more people wearing masks and following other health guidelines.
“Contact tracing alone does not solve our problems here,” Rodriguez said.
The McLean County Board of Health plans to discuss contact tracing staffing at its regular meeting on Wednesday. Executive Committee member George Gordon, a Bloomington Democrat, said he hopes the health board “understands the urgency with which actions have to be undertaken.”
McIntyre suggested part of the frustration he’s hearing from critics could be related to anxiety and stress that people are living with during the pandemic, and he said that has caused the board to become more divided that it has been in the past.
“I’m alarmed a little bit at the amount of dissention that we’ve had,” McIntyre said. “I think some of it is for nothing more than for political gain and I hate to see that.”
Five McLean County Board members, including McIntyre, have opponents in their bids for re-election on Nov. 3.
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