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2 Counties In Illinois Have Opposite Effects Controlling Pandemic

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Here in the U.S., we are seeing one of the worst outbreaks of the coronavirus yet. And we're going to zoom in this morning on Illinois, one of the states seeing a spike in cases. In a moment, we'll hear from the state's health director but, first, to a debate over how to respond to this. In some parts of Illinois, local leaders are not backing guidelines from state health officials. Christine Herman from member station WILL reports.

CHRISTINE HERMAN, BYLINE: In Winnebago County, at the north end of the state, public health administrator Sandra Martell has been threatened with lawsuits from bar owners who want to continue to offer indoor service in violation of the governor's orders for that region. At a press conference this week, she pleaded with businesses to spare her agency from spending precious resources trying to police the contentious mandate.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

SANDRA MARTELL: Our team spends more time having to do this than I really think that we would want to be spending our public health resources on.

HERMAN: Sandra Martell faces a dilemma. She can order a bar closed, for example, but if law enforcement doesn't back her up, nothing more will happen. And the local sheriff and local politicians have publicly encouraged businesses to defy the state's orders. Meanwhile, COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to rise. Two hundred miles south, in Champaign County, public health administrator Julie Pryde's experience is night and day.

JULIE PRYDE: This job is tough enough in doing it in Champaign, where I have a ton of support. I can't imagine doing it where you're fighting against your - the people in your community. It's horrible. And we're losing public health people all over the country.

HERMAN: Pryde says early preventive steps in coordination with other local entities saved lives in Champaign. The University of Illinois campus runs a massive coronavirus testing program, mandatory for all students and employees. And at the start of the semester, campus-area bars and restaurants willingly shut down indoor dining for weeks, going beyond the state's mandate at the time. The death rate in Champaign County is now less than a quarter of Winnebago's.

In Illinois, like everywhere else, public health guidance has become a political target, part of the culture war. That makes the job of public health officials much more difficult and, according to the latest numbers, could put more people at risk.

For NPR News, I'm Christine Herman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.