Days after facing criticism in a WBEZ story for his lack of a vaccine mandate, the chief judge of the Cook County Circuit Court system announced Tuesday that he was requiring court employees to get their COVID-19 shots.
Until abruptly reversing his position, Chief Judge Timothy Evans was virtually alone among the leaders of Illinois and local government in not issuing a vaccine mandate. Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and other elected county officials announced their employees were required to get vaccinated months ago.
In a memo to all judges and other employees, Evans cited the nationwide surge in cases attributed to the contagious omicron variant as a prime reason for reversing his position.
Failure to comply with the new vaccination policy, Evans said, “may subject an employee to discipline, up to and including termination of employment.”
“Because of this surge, and following discussions with public health experts and union representatives throughout the pandemic, the Office of the Chief Judge has determined that vaccination against COVID-19 will be mandated for all employees, with limited exceptions for those who receive accommodations for medical conditions or sincerely held religious beliefs,” Evans wrote.
Employees will have three weeks to get their first shot of one of the vaccines, Evans said.
According to Evans’ spokesperson, the policy will cover about 2,600 court employees, though not the roughly 400 judges. The chief judge’s employees include 574 people who work at the juvenile jail, which is run by Evans.
In the WBEZ story on Dec. 22, two members of the advisory board for the county’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center called on Evans to institute a vaccine mandate. One of them, Amanda Klonsky, said Tuesday’s announcement was “good news.”
But she said the policy should have been instituted long before Tuesday.
“The current surge of omicron cases in the detention center and in the juvenile court was entirely anticipated,” Klonsky said. “We knew there was going to be a winter surge, and the court absolutely should have gotten ahead of it by implementing this vaccine mandate weeks ago.”
Earlier this month, a spokeswoman for Evans said the chief judge encouraged employees to get vaccinated, but would not require it.
In a statement on Tuesday, though, Evans said he was issuing a mandate for coronavirus shots “to ensure the safest possible workplace for our employees, and to protect employees of our justice partners, court services patrons, residents of the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, and the general public.”
Evans also said, “Public health experts have determined that unvaccinated individuals are more likely to contract and transmit the virus and to experience more serious symptoms of COVID-19 than those who are vaccinated.”
Earlier Tuesday, the chief judge’s office said a total of 565 employees and 145 juvenile jail residents have tested positive. Some have contracted the coronavirus more than once since the start of the pandemic but were only counted once each in those total numbers.
The chief judge’s move to require coronavirus shots was announced more than eight months after all adults in Illinois became eligible to get vaccinated.
Preckwinkle required her employees to get vaccinated by Oct. 15. But that policy did not cover the county court system.
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx announced a mandate in August and her office says they have achieved total compliance with those requirements.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who oversees the jail where adults are held, also required vaccinations of his employees, but the sheriff has suspended enforcement of the rule because of pushback from organized labor.
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow him on Twitter @dmihalopoulos.