Nearly four in five Illinois lawmakers say they’ve received COVID-19 vaccines. But the two legislative blocs most unwilling to divulge their vaccination status — Black Democrats and downstate white Republicans — also represent some of the least-inoculated parts of the state.
Those are two main takeaways from an exhaustive, two-week WBEZ survey of Illinois’ 177 state representatives and senators to document for the first time whether the state’s legislative branch is listening to the universal public health chorus that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and there is urgency to get one.
While it is true the vast majority of lawmakers are vaccinated, the statewide struggle to gain broad acceptance of COVID-19 vaccines has parallels in the General Assembly. A still-sizeable core of lawmakers is doing little, if anything, to promote vaccines – including, it seems, rolling up their sleeves and being public role models themselves.
Wariness of getting the vaccines has been driven sky-high by decades of health care injustices toward Black people and a steady diet of skepticism and outright misinformation emanating from conservative cable news and social media platforms, which has hardened opposition in red parts of Illinois.
In the Illinois House, less than half of the 45-member Republican caucus publicly acknowledged being vaccinated, and just under 85% of the 73-member House Democratic caucus is fully vaccinated.
Some of those not responding to WBEZ’s vaccination survey represent areas in Illinois that are severely under-vaccinated.
Those areas include south suburban Ford Heights, where only 16% of the nearly all-Black populace has been fully vaccinated and nearly all-white Henderson County in western Illinois, where only 22% of the total population are fully vaccinated. That’s the second worst vaccinated county among 102.
Statewide, by contrast, 6.5 million residents are fully vaccinated, which amounts to nearly 60% of the population eligible for a shot, according to data published by the Illinois Department of Public Health.
In the General Assembly’s upper chamber, silence from state senators about their vaccination status was nowhere near as pronounced as in the Illinois House.
All 41 members of the Senate Democratic caucus told WBEZ they are fully vaccinated, and all but three within the 18-member Senate Republican caucus responded they, too, are inoculated against the coronavirus.
The vaccine rift in the Illinois GOP
State Sen. Jil Tracy, R-Quincy, said she was vaccinated earlier this year after contracting COVID-19 with other family members following a vacation last summer where they strictly followed safety protocols, like not going out to eat and wearing masks.
Now, she regards vaccinations as the most feasible pathway – “the best science” – to bringing life back to normal in Illinois, and she’s not shy about sharing her vaccination status with anyone who asks.
Particularly after what she and her family went through.
“I wanted to be a role model in that if I’m asking people to consider vaccinations, then I wanted to be the first to step up and say, ‘I’ll get one,’ ” she said.
Tracy is still a minority in her western Illinois county, where just 42% are fully vaccinated, but she hopes that changes. After all, the short-lived side effects of the vaccine are no comparison to the physically-harrowing experience of contracting COVID-19. Even her mild infection sapped her energy levels for months after falling ill, she said.
“I’d much rather have had the vaccine than have COVID, because it’s a very scary two weeks of not knowing what the next day is going to bring,” she said.
One of Tracy’s fellow Senate Republicans, state Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, who has declared his 2022 candidacy for governor, has taken an opposite tack. He has refused to say publicly that he is vaccinated, though WCIA-TV in Champaign reported that he told a closed-door Republican candidates’ forum last month that he is not.
After that event, during a late-July campaign swing through Springfield, Bailey wouldn’t share that information with a broader audience, opting instead to play an indignant game of cat-and-mouse when pressed by a WCIA reporter on his vaccination status.
“You know what, why should I answer that? Why should I answer that?” said Bailey, a member of the Senate Health Committee. “So if I’m vaccinated, that’s good, and if I’m not, that’s bad? No. No. That’s not right.”
Bailey’s legislative district spreads over 14 counties in east-central and southeastern Illinois. The full vaccination rates in those counties vary between 27% and 36%, which is dramatically lower than the statewide average, state public health data shows.
Additionally, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently identifies most of the counties in Bailey’s legislative district as having high rates of community transmission of COVID-19, as it has for most of Illinois.
Bailey, who last year got tossed out of the Illinois House briefly for refusing to wear a mask, did not respond to multiple inquiries from WBEZ about his vaccination status, including at an online press conference Aug. 4 where he assailed Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker’s plan to impose statewide mask mandates in schools and a vaccination requirement for part of the state workforce. At that venue, a Bailey campaign aide ignored three text messages on the subject sent by WBEZ to his cell phone and never reached out afterward.
A nationally respected public health expert ridiculed Bailey’s evasiveness.
“If a person running for governor isn’t vaccinated when one of the major issues on voters’ minds is the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, I really would think that’s disqualifying,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore. “One of the major issues right now is COVID-19, and you yourself don’t see value in the greatest tool we have to combat COVID-19.”
Adalja believes that public officials at all levels have an obligation during the pandemic to help encourage vaccinations, particularly if their constituencies are severely unvaccinated, as is the case in the districts of many who didn’t respond to WBEZ’s vaccination survey.
The only legislator to tell WBEZ he is not vaccinated is state Rep. Dan Caulkins, R-Decatur, who said he “probably” would wind up getting the vaccine but did not return a phone call seeking further elaboration.
“Because these vaccines are safe and effective and legislators were considered a high-priority group — I would want to know, was my legislator intelligent enough to take the vaccine?” Adalja said. “Because if they weren’t that speaks to their intelligence on other issues, and would I really want somebody that wasn’t smart enough to get vaccinated representing me?”
Leaders are vaccinated, but others balk
While a handful of legislators bristled at even being asked about their vaccination status, the vast majority of legislators say they’ve received both of their COVID-19 shots. That includes the leaders of both chambers.
House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside; Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park; House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs; and Senate Minority Leader Dan McConchie, R-Hawthorn Woods, all told WBEZ they have gotten their vaccinations.
Welch is the only legislative leader to have gotten COVID-19 and is one of 25 House and Senate members who disclosed to WBEZ that they believed they contracted the illness. No sitting Illinois lawmakers have died from the coronavirus, though former state Sen. Martin Sandoval, a Democrat who represented Chicago, succumbed last December after pleading guilty to federal corruption charges.
“I am vaccinated and encourage others to do the same,” McConchie said. “In fact, my office partnered with Walgreens to hold a vaccination clinic in our district this spring where over 900 shots were distributed.”
McConchie’s caucus has a far stronger record of vaccination than its House counterparts were willing to disclose. In all, 23 House Republicans declined to answer whether they were vaccinated or did not respond to multiple queries from WBEZ.
“The representative has no comment,” a spokesman for state Rep. Joe Sosnowski, R-Rockford, said in delivering a finger-wagging response to WBEZ for daring to raise the question. “You should not be asking the health status of any person or family member.”
Some of those who refused to divulge their vaccination status have, in fact, touted vaccine events in their districts over the past several months. Yet these same public officials haven’t given voters perhaps the most potent sign of support for the vaccines by announcing they had gotten one themselves.
Of the 37 lawmakers who didn’t reveal their vaccination status, only one offered any extensive justification for their refusal — that getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is a personal health decision that is none of the public’s business.
“Medical information as it pertains to myself, my family or any other individual citizen is a protected privacy right. If a person chooses to forgo that right, it is their choice. However, I will not be conveying any personal or family medical information to anyone other than to my own family physician,” said state Rep. Martin McLaughlin, R-Barrington Hills.
But holding public office necessarily involves revealing information that most citizens keep private. Candidates are required to report their home addresses, and they routinely disclose details about their health during campaigns. Officeholders also are legally required to report personal financial details and expensive gifts.
As with those areas, there is a legitimate basis for knowing a political leader’s vaccination status, Adalja said.
“There’s nothing bad or intrusive about that,” he said. “It’s what people want to know. They want to know: Are you a risk to others? If you’re not vaccinated, you are a risk to others. So I think it’s important that we know that.”
“Someone’s cough could kill my whole family”
The polite, and sometimes not-so-polite, no-comments WBEZ logged on the politically sensitive vaccine question underscore one thing: The next time lawmakers crowd back into the statehouse, there is a high likelihood the vaccinated will be forced to breathe the same air as the unvaccinated with the delta variant still very possibly unrestrained.
And that’s unsettling to state Rep. Marcus Evans, D-Chicago, who represents parts of the city’s South Side and south suburbs.
“That person is OK with putting my family at risk, and I think it’s terrible. And I want to say bad things to them, but that’s not productive,” he said. “I want to continue to be positive because we’re all in this together. [But] someone’s cough could kill my whole family.”
Evans said he was motivated to get vaccinated because he’s a cancer survivor, and he didn’t want to risk passing the virus on to elderly members of his family.
But House Republicans aren’t the only ones with pursed lips on the vaccination question.
Among House Democrats, 11 declined to answer WBEZ’s survey or did not respond. Seven are Black.
Across Illinois, Black and Latino residents have lagged other racial groups in getting vaccinated. Community leaders and public health experts attribute that, in part, to long-standing distrust of government and health officials.
“If you’re Black, you have reasons to not trust the government, the white establishment, right? The Tuskegee Institute, there’s been concerns in the healthcare space,” Evans said, citing the scorned, decades-long federal experiments on Black people who were deliberately infected with syphilis and denied treatment as part of an effort to study the disease. “Black women still die at the hospital more than white women. So there’s sensible reasoning for Blacks to be concerned, right? They’re not crazy.”
State Rep. Thaddeus Jones, D-Calumet City, was among those who ignored multiple requests from WBEZ. Jones, who is Black, is also the mayor of his south suburb.
Within Jones’ legislative district lie undervaccinated communities like Calumet City, Dolton, South Holland, Ford Heights and others. The municipality Jones leads has a 31% full vaccination rate, and new COVID-19 cases have surged by 177% in the past two weeks. Ford Heights is far worse, with roughly 16% fully vaccinated, Cook County public-health data show.
Most of the communities in Jones’ House district fall well below the statewide full vaccination rate.
Evans said he is aware of his Black colleagues’ reticence to get vaccinated or to talk about it, saying “they got the same fears that regular Black people have who are afraid to get the shot.”
“They just have to put aside those fears and go get the vaccine, because this is really about survival. When I started seeing white people come on 87th and Stony Island in the heart of the Black community [to] get the shot, I think that some of the fears and concerns of Black folks need to go away,” he said.
“At our wit’s end”
State Rep. Michael Zalewski, D-Riverside, is vaccinated and was the legislative architect of a novel concept to entice people to get vaccines by authorizing bars and restaurants to provide free drinks to their newly inoculated patrons.
He called it the “shot and a beer” bill. It passed overwhelmingly over token GOP opposition and was signed into law by Pritzker. In the House, Reps. Andrew Chesney, R-Freeport, Brad Halbrook, R-Shelbyville, Chris Miller, R-Oakland, and Dave Severin, R-Benton, were among a smattering of “no” votes.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, they are also now among lawmakers unwilling to share their vaccination status publicly, even as their downstate legislative districts suffer with below-average vaccination rates and the resulting surge in COVID-19-related hospitalizations.
“We really are kind of at our wit’s end here,” Zalewski said, warning that the days of thinking vaccination status is a taboo question may soon be coming to an end in workplaces and other venues across the state.
Even in the statehouse.
“There’s almost going to be a drafting of people having to get the vaccine to be operative in any congregate setting — whether it’s the Illinois General Assembly working on the House floor or going to the grocery store, going to the movie theater, going to a restaurant,” Zalewski said.
“I don’t know how, over the course of time, it’s going to be a sustainable position for people not to ultimately choose to get the vaccine.”