CAPITOL RECAP: State Struggles to Reach Daily Goal of Coronavirus Testing

By Capitol News Illinois

Gov. J.B. Pritzker said on Wednesday, April 8, that COVID-19 testing capabilities just reached the 6,000-daily threshold in Illinois, which is still short of the 10,000 target set by health officials. According to medical and scientific experts, he said, processing 10,000 tests per day will give officials the clearest picture of how many confirmed COVID-19 cases are in the state and how it is spreading.

The hold-up, Pritzker said, is due to “new laboratory automation machines” manufactured by Thermo Fisher Scientific, which originally promised to process a “multi-thousand daily unit increase” of tests, or about 200 hourly. But those five machines—distributed to Illinois’ three state-run labs—are not giving technicians “the level of output that we want to see,” the governor said.

“More importantly, these tests are not producing valid results in a way that meets our exacting standards,” Pritzker added. “I am as impatient as the rest of you are, wanting to increase testing, but I will not sacrifice accuracy for the sake of speed. The tests and results they will provide are too important.”

Until those machines are operating correctly, the governor said, they will not be used to examine Illinois tests.

He also said the state could increase testing output through privatized labs used by the federal government, but those labs turn around test results in seven to ten days, as opposed to state labs and local hospitals which can produce results in two days.

“People can end up on a ventilator before they ever get their testing result. That’s just not a timeline that I want to bet on,” he said of privatized tests.

Pritzker said Abbott Labs dedicated the supplies for around 3,000 rapid, five-minute response tests per day in Illinois, but he noted the federal government “redirected most of these early tests to private systems without our state input about where the tests would make the most impact.”

He added that the federal government provided state labs with 15 Abbott ID now machines, but only 120 total tests.

“That’s eight tests per machine for all of Illinois, but I assure you that we will leave no stone unturned to get the tests that we need to run those machines at full bore,” he said.

COVID-19 CASES AND DEATHS: The Illinois Department of Public Health on Thursday, April 9, reported an additional 1,344 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, bringing the state total to 16,422 in 81 of Illinois’ 102 counties.

Dr. Ngozi Ezike, the department’s director, said 66 residents died in the past 24 hours from Cook, DuPage, Effingham, Kane, Kankakee, Lake, Rock Island, St. Clair, and Will counties. In total, the state has had 528 fatalities caused by coronavirus.

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SUMMER EVENTS: Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Thursday, April 9, one month since he issued a state of emergency, it is “unlikely” his stay-at-home order can be lifted safely before April 30 and organizers of large summer events “need to think seriously” about canceling them.

“From my perspective today, I do not see how we’re going to have large gatherings of people again until we have a vaccine, which is months and months away,” Pritzker said. “I would not risk having large groups of people getting together anywhere, and I think that’s hard for everybody to hear, but it’s just a fact.”

The governor added an increase in testing residents, tracing social spread of COVID-19 and treating those who are ill are “not enough” for him to green-light large scale festivals, fairs and other events.

The number of cases and virus-related deaths in Illinois is still rising, Pritzker said.

“Everybody needs to know that if we are improving, and it’s still up in the air, but if we are improving here in the state, it is because people are staying at home,” he said. “… We need this curve to bend, and then we can begin to talk about how we can begin to open things up a little bit more.”

Even if the public health situation in Illinois begins to improve by the month’s end, state officials will consider other rules and restrictions to implement moving forward.

“It isn’t going to be that all the sudden you’re going to drop the stay-at-home and every other restriction,” Pritzker said, “and that’s because there is a propensity that if you do that, we’re going to see a big spike upward and again, hospitalizations, ICU beds filled, vents filled and more death.”

Since March 9, when the governor issued a disaster proclamation in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, his administration limited gatherings to no more than ten people, closed restaurants and bars to dine-in, enacted a stay-at-home order and shuttered schools.

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JOBLESS CLAIMS:  More than half a million Illinois workers have filed first-time unemployment claims in the four weeks since the COVID-19 outbreak first hit the labor market.

Economists at the University of Illinois are now forecasting a major economic downturn that could last months, or even years, depending on the local severity of the pandemic.

The unemployment claims account for nearly eight percent of the state’s civilian labor force, and they are just part of the estimated 17 million workers nationwide who have lost their jobs over the past month.

The Illinois Department of Employment Security said Thursday that during the week that ended April 2, 201,041 Illinoisans filed initial claims, surpassing the previous record of 178,421 that was set just one week earlier.

The most recent estimates from the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute, dated April 1, suggest that as many as 779,000 people in Illinois could be out of work by July, which would boost the state’s unemployment rate to 15.6 percent.

That would be higher than the historic record rate of 13.1 percent set in February 1983, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In February, just before the COVID-19 outbreak hit, Illinois actually recorded a record low unemployment rate of just 3.4 percent.

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MINIMUM WAGE:  The governor said Thursday, April 9, that implementing the next minimum wage increase in July—as dictated by statute the General Assembly approved last year—is still important. The minimum wage, which increased to $9.25 from $8.25 on Jan. 1 will increase again to $10 on July 1.

The scheduled raise is “very small,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said, and the economic situation created by the pandemic should “indicate to you more than ever before” why it should be done.

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NATIONAL GUARD: Illinois National Guard Adjutant General Richard Neely said at the news conference that as of Wednesday, April 8, there are 575 National Guardsmen engaged across the state supporting the COVID-19 response.

Those efforts range from operating testing facilities and augmenting emergency operation centers, to support of Stateville Correctional Center, which has seen an outbreak of the virus, to assisting in the buildout of an alternate care facility in Chicago.

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PRITZKER STAFFER:  Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Tuesday, April 7, announced a member of his staff—someone who does not have regular contact with the governor or Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike—has COVID-19. That person is isolating at his or her home since feeling symptomatic on March 26, and the Chicago office in the James R. Thompson Center had a “professional, multi-hour deep cleaning” at the time, Pritzker said.

The employee has been in self-isolation for 12 days and no other people from the office have shown symptoms, Pritzker said.

Neither he nor Ezike were tested for the virus, they confirmed.

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HOSPITAL CAPACITY: Gov. JB Pritzker on Tuesday, April 7, said his administration worked to increase the capacity at Illinois’ more than 200 hospitals since “the earliest days of COVID-19 response.”

There are just under 28,000 hospital beds across the state, about 2,700 of which are intensive care unit beds. These numbers do not account for the extra resources the state is building at its five alternative care facilities—McCormick Place in Chicago, Advocate Sherman Hospital Campus in Elgin, Metro South Health Center in blue Island, West Lake Hospital in Melrose Park, and Vibra Hospital in Springfield.

As of Monday, 43 percent of hospital beds were available at Illinois facilities and 35 percent of intensive care unit beds were available. The governor’s office also said 57 percent of the state’s 2,791 ventilators were available.

Pritzker also said COVID-19 patients are using 43 percent of the state’s total intensive care beds, up from 38 percent last Tuesday, and 29 percent the state’s total ventilator count, up from 24 percent last week.

Those statistics are subject to change due to instances such as newly-discharged patients and the number of staff and equipment accessible.

Illinois received over 2,300 applications for temporary medical permits from professionals who either are retired, working in other states or those just about to graduate from medical school. The federal government will also assign medical staff to work at the state’s alternative facilities, the governor said.

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RURAL HOSPITALS: Although the COVID-19 outbreak in Illinois so far has been mainly concentrated around the Chicago area, public health officials are bracing for a surge of cases in rural areas of downstate Illinois, including areas that already have shortages of hospital beds, health care providers and equipment.

“So, we’re keeping a close eye on that,” Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said Wednesday, April 9. “As we look right now, I think our hot spot is more northern Illinois … but we’re keeping an eye on all the beds, the ICUs, the ventilators and the availability of those, and we potentially, we’ll have to do some moving of things, but we are also looking at what the needs will be there.”

Despite health care shortages in some areas, Danny Chun, a spokesman for the Illinois Health and Hospital Association, said in an interview that most rural hospitals in Illinois should be well prepared for the surge, at least in terms of strategy.

“They are very prepared,” he said, citing two major trends in health care: industry consolidation over the past five to ten years into health care “systems” that have the ability to share resources, and regional planning.

“A lot of small and rural hospitals, critical access hospitals, are now part of large systems, like OSF, HSHS, Carle, Southern Illinois Health,” Chun said.

“Then there’s an existing structure within the state of Illinois—they’re called Regional Health Care Coalitions,” he added. “There are 11 coalitions throughout the state covering every area of the state, including southern and central Illinois, where all the health care providers in that region get together in terms of emergency planning, pandemic planning, emergency exercises. That’s been in place for years.”

According to IDPH, each of those 11 regions has one main hospital designated as the coordinating center. For example, the Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana serves as the coordinating center in the Champaign region, which covers 18 counties in east-central Illinois.

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PERSONAL PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT: Gov. JB Pritzker said Monday, April 6, that state officials are “scouring the globe” for personal protective equipment, or PPE, as it prepares for the COVID-19 outbreak to peak in Illinois over the next two weeks.

Pritzker said the federal government has supplied Illinois with only “a small fraction” of the protective equipment it has requested from the Strategic National Stockpile of such equipment maintained by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and he pointedly suggested the federal government recently changed the goals of that program.

“Suddenly the website no longer said that the SNS would ‘support’ states, but instead now said that the SNS is meant only to supplement state supplies during public health emergencies and only as a short-term stopgap buffer when the immediate supply of adequate amounts of these materials may not be immediately available,” Pritzker said.

Those supplies are intended to protect health care workers and first responders who come into contact with infected patients. They include such things as face masks that can filter out the virus, as well as surgical masks and gowns, gloves, face shields and coveralls.

So far, Pritzker said, the state has placed orders for 10 million N95 masks, 14 million KN95 masks, 7 million surgical masks, 22 million disposable general use masks, more than 19 million gloves, more than 5 million face shields and more than 3 million gowns.

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RELIGIOUS SERVICES: Gov. JB Pritzker on Monday, April 6,urged all worshipers to remain at home instead of attending regular services. Western Christian religions will celebrate Easter on Sunday, April 12. Jewish congregations will celebrate Passover April 8-16. Eastern Orthodox Christians in the United States will celebrate Easter on Sunday, April 19.

Pritzker urged churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship to hold online services or some other form of remote meeting instead.

“There’s a funny term I’ve heard for Passover Seder, a ‘Zeder,’ a Zoom Seder,” he said. “And I think that we’re all going to be experiencing the holidays in a very unusual way this year. But it’s very important. I cannot reiterate this enough. It is very important that you stay home. It is very important that you do not gather in a place of worship or in somebody’s home with other families or even with your family if they don’t live with you. We’ve got to protect each other, and this will not last forever, but this is one Easter, one Passover that you’re going to have to do something unusual.”

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HOSPITAL PAYMENTS: The Illinois comptroller’s office borrowed $105 million from various funds in March, in large part so it could make bigger-than-normal payments to hospitals as they brace for the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak later this month.

But Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza is advising all state vendors that there will likely be payment delays in April, in part because the tax filing deadline for both state and federal taxes has been pushed back to July 15.

The inter-fund borrowing was noted last week in the state’s monthly revenue report from the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability. The comptroller’s office has authority to engage in such borrowing to meet short-term cash flow needs of the general revenue fund.

That report noted that total tax receipts in March, at $3.4 billion, was about what was expected, and 3.3 percent above the same month last year. But it also noted that the impact of the economic slowdown brought on by Gov. JB Pritzker’s stay-at-home order and closure of nonessential businesses had not yet shown up in the revenue numbers.

Mendoza’s spokesman, Abdon Pallasch, said in an interview Monday, April 6, that some of the borrowing in March had been planned earlier but that “a large part” of the borrowing in March was to help provide hospitals with cash as they treat a growing number of COVID-19 patients.

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ELECTIONS LAWSUIT: Social distancing and stay-at-home orders, instituted to combat the novel coronavirus pandemic, are in direct conflict with Illinois’ ballot eligibility requirements, the Libertarian and Green parties of Illinois allege in a lawsuit filed Thursday, April 2.

Both are considered “new” parties under state election rules, meaning a candidate running for office under those banners must receive a greater number of in-person petition signatures than those with “established” parties—typically, the Democrats and Republicans.

Libertarians and Greens have from March 24 until June 22 to gather enough signatures—in person with a canvasser watching—to qualify for inclusion on the Nov. 3 general election ballot.

But party officials allege meeting that threshold will be “practically impossible” given Gov. JB Pritzker’s social distancing and stay-at-home orders.

“Even assuming that the governor’s emergency orders were lifted on May 1, 2020, (the Libertarian and Green parties) and their candidates will have lost over five weeks of petitioning time, or more than one-third of the time allotted to them to collect signatures in person by Illinois law,” according to the lawsuit.

The parties are asking that Illinois’ signature collection mandates be waived or suspended this general election cycle so their candidates may be on the ballot, and also that the state reimburse their attorney’s fees.

The Illinois State Board of Elections, in a letter, said it is unable to assist.

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FEDERAL HELP: Gov. JB Pritzker said Sunday, April 5, he has “given up” on an adequate coronavirus response from the federal government during his daily COVID-19 briefing in Chicago.

Pritzker’s latest criticism of the federal response came when he was asked about an Associated Press story which reported the U.S. government “squandered nearly two months that could have been used to bolster the federal stockpile of medical supplies and equipment” critically needed to fight COVID-19.

The AP’s story reviewed documents which showed the feds waited until mid-March to start placing bulk orders of N95 masks, ventilators and other necessary personal protective equipment for medical professionals, despite being briefed on the dangers of the virus as early as January.

“And so the idea that the United States federal government did nearly nothing for quite a long time is now being visited upon us,” Pritzker said. “And I’ve said this over and over again, that if action had been taken earlier, a lot fewer lives would be lost.”

While Pritzker said “nobody” or “very few people” could have predicted how deadly the virus would be, the federal government “had this information before the states did, and should have been out there exercising the Defense Production Act, acquiring PPE, acquiring ventilators.”

“And then we wouldn’t be in the situation that we’re in today, where everybody is short of ventilators,” he said, noting states are bidding against each other, foreign governments and sometimes the federal government for supplies.

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CHILD CARE PROGRAM: Gov. JB Pritzker on Sunday, April 5, announced an expansion of eligibility to child care funding assistance for essential workers and an increase in financial support for emergency child care centers and homes.

Effective April 1, the governor said, all essential workers now qualify for the state’s Child Care Assistance Program, meaning the state will cover “most if not all of the cost of care” for qualifying workers.

“That includes everyone from nurses and doctors to support staff in hospitals, to grocery store clerks and food producers,” he said.

Information on the assistance is available at coronavirus.illinois.gov and at DHS.illinois.gov/helpishere.

Also effective April 1, the state will pay 30 percent above the usual reimbursement rates to emergency child care centers and homes.

Pritzker said the state offered a new permit for child care centers serving essential workers, and more than 550 have received such a permit. He said more than 1,500 home child care providers continue to operate as well. Home child care providers do not need a permit and can serve up to six children.

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RACIAL DISPARITY: At a briefing Sunday, April 5, Dr. Ngozi Ezike, Illinois Department of Public Health director, said about 30 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases are in African Americans, and more information about the Black death rate will be provided next week.

“We know all too well that there are general disparities and health outcomes that play along these racial lines. And the same may be true for this virus,” she said. “We have worked to ensure that all of our communities can access the health care they need as COVID-19 spreads and we will make sure that resources are directed where they are needed most.”

Ezike said that work will continue “long after” the pandemic, and Pritzker pointed out that Westlake Hospital in Melrose Park and MetroSouth Medical Center in Blue Island–both in the Chicago area–will be reopened during the pandemic.

“Those are two examples, anyway, of hospitals that are in communities of color that are serving communities of color that were closed over the last year or two, that we want to make sure and reopen and provide health care for people,” he said.

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MASKS RECOMMENDED: If Illinoisans do need to venture out of their homes, Gov. J.B. Pritzker recommended–but is not requiring–people to wear cloth masks around their faces to lessen the spray of droplets.

Pritzker first announced the new mask recommendation Friday, April 3, in line with the federal government’s guidelines. Although he could not provide a “definitive answer,” Pritzker clarified his suggestions on Saturday, saying that masks need be worn only in crowded places.

“If you’re in an area where you’re not going to run into crowds of people, it is perfectly fine to walk around and just breathe the air without having to wear a mask,” he said during his daily briefing Saturday, April 4, in Chicago. “But, if you’re going into an area, stopping at a gas station, at a pharmacy, at a grocery store, or heading to one, it’s a good idea, in my opinion, to wear one.”

As for the state’s inventory of N95 respirator masks, which provide increased protection for health care workers and other first responders, Pritzker said Illinois has received only 500,000 of the 7 million it has requested from the federal government.

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VETERANS HOMES: Since mid-March, the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs has limited its veterans homes to only essential personnel and encouraged residents to limit time outside their rooms, including staggering meal times. Employees and vendors are also screened every day, including temperature checks.

“We are encouraging everyone to video chat, call and write to their loved ones at our homes,” IDVA Director Linda Chapa LaVia said Saturday, April 4.

LaVia said no resident has yet to contract COVID-19, but an employee at the Prince Home in Manteno, outside Kankakee, has tested positive. She said that employee is at home recovering.

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DCFS DURING PANDEMIC: Mark Smith, director of the Department of Children and Family Services, said nearly 9 in 10 of his agency’s employees are working from home, including everyone manning phones for its abuse and neglect hotline.

“But even with that change, we are still providing the support that families and communities depend on,” Smith said during Gov. J.B. Prtitzker’s daily presser Saturday, April 4, in Chicago.

He added that DCFS employees who are still working in the field, such as caseworkers and investigators, are practicing social distancing and wearing protecting gear.

New guidelines for birth parents include “giving them the ability to use phone and video to replace many of their in-person contacts with their children,” Smith said. DCFS has also increased board payments to foster parents for March and April to help with additional expenses.

“We will continue to assess how these disruptions bring new threats to the well-being of our state’s children,” Smith said.

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IDHS DURING PANDEMIC: At the Illinois Department of Human Services, Director Grace Hou said most of her agency’s staff cannot stay home “because they are, every day, ensuring that Illinois residents have food on their table, shelter, housing support, and have access to health care, receive psychiatric care and are safe.”

Because COVID-19 poses a higher risk to IDHS residents and patients with underlying medical conditions, Hou said the agency’s “infection control team” guides its actions.

At the agency’s 14 residential facilities, non-essential visits have been stopped, staff members are given health screenings at every shift change, residents have their vitals checked twice a day and cleaning has increased.

“This past Monday, we closed all but 13 public-facing offices and urged people to stay at home and to access services online and by phone,” Hou said Saturday, April 4.

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FIELD HOSPITALS: The McCormick Place convention center can now treat 500 non-intensive care COVID-19 patients in rooms measuring 10 square feet, with the plan of eventually growing it to a capacity of 3,000 by the end of April. The first phase also included 14 nursing stations and support rooms for medical supply storage, pharmacy and housekeeping services.

“This is a facility that we stood up because the human population is susceptible to this virus at a scale never before seen in our lifetimes,” Gov. JB Pritzker said at a news conference Friday, April 3.  “And it very well might be that this virus overwhelms our existing hospital capacity in Illinois, as it has done in Italy and other countries around the world, and as it’s beginning to do in other parts of our country, too. … We’re already seeing this very real scenario take place.”

McCormick Place is one of five planned alternate care facilities announced by Pritzker to deal with COVID-19 patients who are in need of medical care but not intensive care.  The aim is to reserve hospital beds for the COVID-19 patients in need of more intensive medical care.

The planned additional facilities include the former Advocate Sherman Hospital campus in Elgin, the Metro South Health Center in Blue Island, and Westlake Hospital in Melrose Park, all in northern Illinois.

The latest addition to the list is the site of the former Vibra Hospital in Springfield, which the state is acquiring to expand capacity.

Nearly 140 contracted personnel from Illinois and other states will staff McCormick Place, which is overseen by Dr. Nick Turkal, the former CEO of Advocate Aurora Healthcare.

“This will never be a place that has an emergency room,” Turkal said of the alternate care facility. “It will never be a place that people come to the front door and admit themselves. This is a place that will relieve some of the strain from our hospital partners. We will accept patients from our hospital partners who are already COVID-positive, and who are appropriate for this kind of setting.”

 

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit news service operated by the Illinois Press Foundation that provides coverage of state government to newspapers throughout Illinois. The mission of Capitol News Illinois is to provide credible and unbiased coverage of state government to the more than 400 daily and weekly newspapers that are members of the Illinois Press Association.

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