Hours before an Illinois stay-at-home order went into effect on Saturday, Gov. JB Pritzker implored retired doctors, nurses and other medical professionals who have left the field to return to work to help fight COVID-19.
State health officials also announced 168 new cases and a death toll now at six, including most recently a Cook County man in his 70s.
“We're in the middle of a battle, and we need reinforcements,” Pritzker said in his call to action. “We'll be waiving the fees and expediting licensure so you can rejoin the healthcare workforce, right away.”
The governor said information would be available on the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation website by Monday.
In addition to the six deaths, the total number of coronavirus cases in Illinois now stands at 753. WBEZ learned on Friday that officials project that number to reach close to 3,400 within the next week.
Paul Pedersen, president of the Illinois State Medical Society, applauded the governor's efforts to “streamline the red tape and bureaucracy standing in the way of getting willing retired medical professionals re-licensed and to the front lines of patient care.”
“Illinois physicians are ready and willing to engage in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic,” Pedersen said.
But some professional organizations say the shortage of supplies such as gloves and masks may make the decision to return to work difficult for some professionals, especially those in retirement who face more of a health risk because of their age.
“One of the big issues any retired nurse would be concerned about is the shortage of personal protective equipment and other measures that would ensure a safe work environment,” said Chris Martin, a spokesperson for the Illinois Nurses Association. “Many nurses are reporting to us that hospitals have shortages of PPEs, or personal protective equipment, for current staff. Adding new nurses to that will tax a system that is not properly equipped to keep current nurses safe.”
Pritzker said he has reached out to manufacturers and businesses to help bulk up the state's supplies of protective gear for doctors, nurses and first responders.
“We’re keeping a reasonable inventory count and making sure we’re not going to run out of those things,” Pritzker said.
But the governor added the state has received “limited help” from the Trump administration in securing supplies, saying he has been “frustrated and sometimes even angry at the failures of the federal government.”
To further expand its access to medical personnel, Pritzker said the state would automatically extend through September the licenses of medical professionals that may expire soon. The governor also said the state would make it easier for healthcare workers who live in bordering states to practice in Illinois.
Health experts and government officials say the best way the public can support medical staff right now is to wash their hands and practice social distancing. As of 5 p.m. Saturday, the state is under a “stay at home order” until April 7. People are allowed to leave their homes for groceries, medical care and other necessities or go outdoors for exercise or to walk their dogs. However, all non-essential travel is banned.
Hunter Clauss contributed to this report.
Shannon Heffernan is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow her at @shannon_h. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.