COVID-19 Cases Race Higher As Illinois Awaits Billions In Federal Relief

New cases are now accumulating at a staggering pace of one nearly every two minutes.

COVID-19 Official Updates Pritzker
AP Photo
COVID-19 Official Updates Pritzker
AP Photo

COVID-19 Cases Race Higher As Illinois Awaits Billions In Federal Relief

New cases are now accumulating at a staggering pace of one nearly every two minutes.

Illinois’ COVID-19 cases and deaths each jumped by more than a third Thursday in their largest daily increase yet as Congress and President Trump raced to get billions of new pandemic-relief dollars to the state and its straining health-care system.

Overall, state public health officials reported 2,538 COVID-19 cases statewide with Thursday’s one-day increase of 673 — more than doubling the previous single-day record for cases set only Wednesday. Those new cases accumulated at a staggering pace of one nearly every two minutes.

Additionally, seven more people died from the virus Thursday, raising the state’s total to 26. Among the dead were a man in his 50s, two men and two women in their 60s, a man in his 70s, and a woman in her 90s. Approximately 87% of fatalities have been in patients 60 years and older.

Addressing the rapidly escalating growth, Gov. JB Pritzker lashed out at Illinoisans who have flouted his five-day-old “stay-at-home” order. People have been crowding onto lakefront jogging paths and other areas in Chicago while failing to maintain six feet of separation from other people, the distance public-health authorities have deemed safe.

“Hosting a party, crowding down by the lake, playing a pick-up basketball game in a public park — if you’re doing these things, you are spitting in the face of the doctors and nurses and first responders who are risking everything so that you can survive,” Pritzker said at his daily COVID-19 briefing. “We are quite literally in the middle of a battle to save your life.”

Prior to the governor’s comments, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that the city’s lakefront, Millennium Park, the Riverwalk and 606 trail would be shut down because crowds had overrun portions of those areas.

State public health officials last week predicted that by the end of this week, Illinois could be facing 3,400 total COVID-19 cases, a number that seemed vast at the time but now is close to reality.

“Of course, we know that we’re in a period of exponential growth. And so we know that the numbers will have these giant rises,” said state Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike. “We’re fortunately a little under some of the predictions from the very beginning, again, because of so many measures enacted by Gov. Pritzker.”

Ezike said she expects the state to “see more improvement” in slowing the growth of new cases because of the effects of Pritzker’s stay-at-home order, which was implemented last Saturday.

In a counter to the gloom of an increasingly sicker Illinois, a massive infusion of new federal dollars is poised to help hospitals under siege by waves of new COVID-19 patients. It also will offer financial lifeblood to shuttered Illinois businesses, thousands of laid-off workers and the state’s cash-strapped treasury. Early Thursday, the Senate approved a $2.2 trillion relief package that awaits likely House approval Friday.

“Something miraculous has happened in Washington,” said Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, who joined Pritzker at his briefing. “We’ve actually done something on a timely basis.”

The $2 trillion federal COVID-19 relief package awaiting final congressional approval allows for Illinoisans making up to $75,000 a year to receive cash payments of up to $1,200 apiece and $500 for each child, though those one-time payments are hinged to income levels.

The package extends unemployment benefits to people not currently covered, including gig economy employees and the self-employed. For the next four months, affected unemployed workers who qualify could get an additional $600 in benefits per week.

The federal legislation also directs billions of dollars in emergency funding to Illinois hospitals dealing with a surge of virus-stricken patients and at least $5 billion for cash-strapped state government, according to an analysis from Illinois’ two U.S. senators.

The measure also infuses cash into Chicago’s mass transit system that has remained running during Pritzker’s “stay-at-home” order, Illinois-based players of the airline industry and the state’s election system.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the federal relief bill “irresponsible,” because he doesn’t think it provides enough for his state, where the COVID-19 death toll now stands at 385.

But Pritzker offered an entirely different assessment of what the measure means for Illinois.

“Look, this is progress,” Pritzker said. “At least recognize a win when we see one.”

Below is a look at other COVID-19 developments that emanated Thursday from the governor’s office or Washington.

  • Illinois COVID-19 Response Fund: Pritzker today announced the creation of a new fund to help quickly grant financial support to nonprofits and other organizations that provide emergency food and supplies, interim housing, assistance paying utility bills and support for children. Pritzker said that he, his wife and his foundation have contributed a combined $4 million to the fund, which is being run by the governor’s sister, Penny Pritzker. “The point is to get these funds out to the organizations and nonprofits as quickly as possible, so that we can help our most vulnerable residents who are feeling so much pain right now,” the former U.S. Commerce Secretary said. (In the interest of full disclosure, Ms. Pritzker’s foundation, the Pritzker Traubert Family Foundation, has supported WBEZ.) She said the fund has raised a total of $23 million so far from an array of wealthy Illinoisans and foundations. More information is at www.ilcovidresponsefund.org.

  • President Trump approved Gov. Pritzker’s disaster declaration: That means federal funding will be available for crisis counseling throughout the state. Pritzker says that includes increasing hospital and housing capacity and an expansion of tele-health services. Pritzker said he’s also seeking federal disaster assistance for each county in the state, which would give Illinoisans more unemployment benefits for those ineligible for state unemployment benefits, as well as more benefits for those seeking food and supplies.

  • Call with the president: Pritzker said he and other governors participated in a call with Trump Thursday, shortly before the president released a letter to them advising his administration would be publishing “new guidelines for state and local policymakers to use in making decisions about maintaining, increasing or relaxing social distancing and other mitigation measures they have put in place.” Trump has called for an easing of “stay-at-home” orders like those in Illinois to allow a restarting of the economy by Easter. It’s a move public-health officials across the country say could fuel masses of new COVID-19 cases, and Pritzker denounced the president’s latest maneuver. “All I can say is I’m concerned about the desire of the president to ignore potentially the science to try to do something that I know he has a desire to do,” the governor said. “But people will die. People will get sick.”

  • Call for former medical professionals to come back: Pritzker announced that 450 former and retired medical professionals heeded his call to return to the medical field. Pritzker had asked that they come back to the industry to help hospitals that are overly stressed with staffing.

Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover state politics for WBEZ. Follow them on Twitter @davemckinney and @tonyjarnold.