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DANVILLE — Father Timothy Sauppé had an idea.

The leader of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Westville wanted a listening session of people from the Vermilion County community to speak to elected officials about the COVID-19 vaccine and public health mandates.

“The Diocese of Peoria mandated the shot for catholic schools or weekly testing and I made my arguments and I thought maybe you should listen to how people are affected by something you are trying to push,” Sauppé said. “I recommended a listening sessions for the schools, teachers and priests to the Diocese and I got a reply saying no. I had to challenge myself, so I reached out to elected leaders to see if they wanted to participate in the session.”

The idea came to fruition on Tuesday at Danville’s David S. Palmer Arena. State Rep. Mike Marron, Westville Mayor Mike Weese, Vermilion County Health Department Administrator Doug Toole and Sallie Nylan, a representative for Illinois House District 15 U.S. Rep. Mary Miller, were in attendance as local people voiced concerns.

“Looking at the national conversation, it is a pretty divided issue and conversations with people, you hear anecdotal stuff and it is anecdotal unless you report, so let’s have a listening session where people who support the vaccine or are against the vaccine can talk about it,” Sauppé said.

People were asked to tell personal stories and pose questions at the town hall event. Ruth Hunt asked why the mandate is forced on people who can prove they built a natural immunity to the virus after a bout with it.

“It’s very stressful if you lose your job and you already have immunity,” Hunt said. “I want to know why the government is pushing the shot so much and not go for natural immunity.”

Ruth and her husband, Curtis, were in Michigan at an event at Hillsdale College, but made the trip back to Danville to participate in the session.

Tony Wait, a volunteer for the Oakwood Fire Department, talked about what mandates for health workers have done and what it could lead to for emergency first responders. He said he was concerned that the City of Danville was not having enough ambulances available to respond to calls.

“They call Oakwood to leave our district and run calls for Danville. Georgetown is having so much trouble keeping people that they have downgraded to a basic service,” Wait said. “My question is if the mandates go on in places like OSF and Carle, we are keeping away medical staff that can help. Who are you going to call if they lose their jobs because they don’t want the vaccine?

“I have a risk every day driving or going into a burning fire. It should be my decision if I want to take that vaccine.”

State Rep. Marron spoke about his frustrations with public health measures and was supportive of the idea of a listening session on the topic.

“I feel like one of my biggest frustrations through this process is that the people making the decisions have not consulted people on a local level and us as representatives and it has been hard because I take it very seriously,” Marron said. “It scares me as a dad and a husband and it is what I focus on the most. Some of the things that we have done have had real world consequences for their jobs and I feel there has been very little given to that. I think you would have had more of a buy-in if there were more things like this where people can talk about it.

“I wish that we had all the answers, but we don’t. I struggle with this. I am vaccinated and my wife is vaccinated and will continue to encourage people to get a vaccination, but I think the mandate is counterproductive and I don’t think people want to be dictated to. I think it is the wrong move and I think you are seeing the consequences. I think a more collaborative approach would have been more productive.”

Marron, a Republican, also said a collaborative approach would work with state government as well.

“The thing is we have been running the state on executive orders. When the virus hit, we had a 30-day limit for a major emergency to convene and have the government work like it has before, but the legislature has not been involved,” Marron said. “I absolutely agree with the statement that we work for you and we should not mandate things that we can’t do ourselves. And people don’t buy into with people mandating masks and vaccines and they are having a party without a mask or vacationing in Florida. This is a serious disease, but we have to lead by example. We can’t dictate things to people and not follow things we have to do.”

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, a Democrat, issued a statewide mask mandate last summer during a major surge in Covid cases which led to increased deaths and hospitalizations around the state. The order also mandates vaccines for certain professionals in health care and education, as well as for students and state employees.

Toole told those gathered that vaccinations for diseases from Covid, flu and shingles are the best way to keep kids in school and the economy strong. He also said it’s wise to remain vigilant with mask-wearing and hand-washing to lessen the chances of spreading the disease.

Vermilion County is among the least vaccinated counties in the state, with a rate currently at 37.47%. In Illinois, the vaccination rate is almost 56%. Vermilion has the lowest rate of surrounding counties. In neighboring Champaign County, the vaccination rate is almost 55%. Total deaths since the pandemic began 19 months ago recently reached 192, with a major surge in fatalities occurring the past two months.

More than 28,000 people have died from Covid in Illinois. Nationwide, the death toll recently surpassed 718,000.

Sauppé said the listening session was a personal pastoral mission and that he paid to sponsor it.

“We wanted a town hall even where we can speak to our elected officials and that was what I wanted to do,” Sauppé said. “We got some dialogue and we wanted more people but it was what it was. It was an attempt and I was hoping for a pro and con discussion and to bring a grassroots approach of our elected officials. I think that is part of the American experience that we needed.”

The last speaker of the session said she felt there were more problems with the mandate than without.

“I feel a lot of people have died for our freedom to choose than getting Covid,” the lady said. “I am asking how far is this mandate going to go. Are they going to push it into schools and our work force? What are we going to do with those people who don’t want the shot? They are going to have no income, lose their homes and fall into addiction or starve to death. None of it is making sense to me, I just think people should have a choice.”

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