Days after being criticized in a WBEZ story for its lack of a vaccine mandate, the chief justice of the Cook County court system announced Tuesday that he was asking all judges and other court employees to get their COVID-19 footage.
Until he suddenly reversed his position, Chief Justice Timothy Evans was almost alone among Illinois and local government leaders not to issue a vaccine mandate. Illinois Governor JB Pritzker, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Cook County Board Chairman Tony Breckwinkel and other county elected officials announced that their employees should be vaccinated months ago.
In a note to all judges and other staff, Evans cited the nationwide increase in cases attributed to an infectious omicron variant as the main reason for reversing his position.
Evans said failure to comply with the new vaccination policy “may subject the employee to discipline, up to and including termination of employment.”
“Because of this increase, and after discussions with public health experts and union representatives throughout the pandemic, the Chief Justice’s office has determined that vaccination against COVID-19 will be mandatory for all employees, with limited exceptions for those who obtain accommodations for “medical conditions or devout religious beliefs,” Evans wrote. .
Evans said employees will have three weeks to get their first shot of one of the vaccines.
The policy will cover about 400 judges and about 2,600 other court employees, including 574 people who work at the juvenile prison, which is run by the chief justice.
In the WBEZ’s story On December 22, two members of the advisory board for Evans County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center called for a vaccine mandate to be drawn up. One of them, Amanda Klonsky, said Tuesday’s announcement was “good news.”
But she said the policy should have been drawn up long before Tuesday.
“The current uptick in Omicron cases in the detention center and juvenile court was entirely predictable,” Klonsky said. “We knew there would be an increase in the winter, and the court should have gotten ahead of it by implementing that vaccine mandate weeks ago.”
Earlier this month, a spokeswoman for Evans said the chief justice encouraged employees to receive the vaccination, but did not request it.
In a statement released Tuesday, though, Evans said he was authorizing the coronavirus doses to “ensure a safer workplace for our employees, and to protect staff of our justice partners, court service goers, TJCC residents, 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 develop more severe symptoms of COVID-19 than those who have been vaccinated.”
Earlier Tuesday, the Chief Justice’s office said a total of 565 employees and 145 juvenile residents at the prison had tested positive for the virus. Some have contracted the coronavirus more than once since the start of the pandemic but it has only been counted once in these total numbers.
The chief justice’s move to demand coronavirus injections was announced more than eight months after all adults in Illinois became eligible for vaccination.
Breckwinkel has asked its employees to receive the vaccination by October 15. But this policy did not cover the district court system.
Cook County’s state attorney, Kim Fox, announced her mandate in August, and her office says they have achieved full compliance with those requirements.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who oversees the prison where the adults are held, also requested vaccinations from his staff, but the mayor suspended enforcement of the rule because organized workers were pushed back.
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on the Government and Politics team at WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @dmihalopoulos.