Illinois Governor Proposes $80 Million ‘Army’ To Track The Spread Of COVID-19

COVID-19 Official Updates Pritzker V2
AP Photo / WBEZ
COVID-19 Official Updates Pritzker V2
AP Photo / WBEZ

Illinois Governor Proposes $80 Million ‘Army’ To Track The Spread Of COVID-19

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Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker proposed a massive $80 million program Friday to hire “an army” of nearly 4,000 state workers to track anyone who came into contact with people who test positive for COVID-19.

Modeled after a similar and likely smaller program employed in Massachusetts, the so-called contact tracing program is regarded as necessary to reopen parts of Illinois once the governor pulls back on his stay-at-home order, which began a 30-day extension on Friday.

“In order to safely move back toward normalcy, Illinois, the United States, and frankly the whole world must contact trace on a never-before-seen scale,” Pritzker said during his daily COVID-19 briefing, which has taken place for 57 straight days.

The development capped a busy day in the state’s evolving response to the coronavirus pandemic that claimed the lives of another 105 people during the past 24 hours, bringing the overall statewide death toll to 2,457.

Hundreds of protesters, many not observing social-distancing guidelines and not wearing protective face coverings, converged on the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago and the state Capitol in Springfield to rally against the governor’s newest stay-at-home order, which runs through May 30.

And late Friday afternoon, with the exponential rise of COVID cases leveling off, both Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a further scaling back of the temporary COVID-19 field hospital at McCormick Place. Originally, the facility was designed to accommodate 3,000 beds for less seriously ill COVID-19 patients.

On Friday, a top aide to Pritzker said the facility will be downsized to only 500 beds, a more aggressive scaling back than had been announced just last Sunday. Officials had said that the McCormick Place facility would be pared back to 1,000 beds because of the state’s flattening COVID-19 curve.

“All patients currently receiving care at McCormick will continue to receive outstanding medical care for the duration of their illness, and plans for deconstruction are currently underway,” according to a joint statement from the governor’s and mayor’s offices.

But the big news of the day was the governor shedding light for the first time on his plans for a massive contact-tracing program that would aim to begin functioning by the end of May.

Contact tracing is a practice that aims to slow the spread of highly contagious illnesses like the coronavirus by quickly notifying friends, families, co-workers and others who made contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Those people then would move into a self-isolation phase, ensuring anyone who caught the virus wasn’t spreading it to others, thus hindering transmission of the illness.

On Friday, for example, there were 3,137 new COVID-19 cases. The Pritzker administration wants the state ultimately to be in the position of being able to notify multiple contacts for each new case that they, too, may be at risk of getting the virus. The state’s expected hiring binge assumes 30 new workers are needed for every 100,000 residents in the state.

“Here in Illinois, we’ve had more than 50,000 known cases to date, largely in just a 60-day time frame. Their contacts are 50,000 sets of family, friends, coworkers, commuters, classmates and other contacts. It’s an unprecedented public health challenge so we need an unprecedented solution to meet this moment,” Pritzker said.

“To do that, Illinois will be building on our existing infrastructure and expertise to shape a massive statewide contact-tracing operation, gradually building over the coming weeks and then scaling up an army of contact tracers by the hundreds and then by the thousands,” Pritzker said.

The announcement came as protesters were rallying outside the Thompson Center against the governor’s plans to extend the stay-at-home order for a second time.

Protesters waved American and Trump-support flags and carried signs decrying the state’s stay-at-home order, as Chicago police officers in face coverings looked on.

“Give me liberty or give me COVID-19,” read one sign, and “Let my people go … back to work,” read another.

One demonstrator — former Republican Cook County Commissioner Tony Peraica — said extending the stay-at-home order through May 29 will cause “irreparable harm” to individuals and the economy. Peraica said public bodies — including the state legislature — should convene to begin a regionalized approach to opening more sectors of the economy.

“This unilateral action by our governor and other governors across the country is causing irreparable harm,” Peraica said. “It’s time to have some accountability, and it’s time to allow people to go to work.”

The anti-Pritzker protesters were met by healthcare workers represented by the Illinois Nurses Association, who were rallying in support of the governor’s actions.

Paul Pater, a University of Chicago Hospital emergency room nurse and board member of the nurses union, said protesters on the other side behaved belligerently, noting one who held a sign that read “Nurses are Nazis.”

“People were telling me that I wasn’t a real nurse, that I was a paid actor,” said Pater, who organized the nurses protest. “They were saying, ‘You’re not a hero, you don’t have valor. You’re stealing valor from the troops. I served and if you didn’t serve, you don’t mean anything.‘”

Despite the made-for-newscasts protest, Pritzker’s actual handling of the COVID-19 crisis appears to have drawn favorable marks from Illinoisans.

New national polling by a consortium involving Harvard University, Northeastern University and Rutgers University found that in Illinois, 69% of residents support the governor’s response to the virus. That is 30 percentage points better than how those surveyed here view President Trump’s handling of the public-health crisis.

In other developments on the state’s COVID-19 front:

  • Opening pockets of the state before May 30: Pritzker said he is willing to take a regional approach to reopening the state’s economy before his new executive order expires — but it depends on healthcare availability in those regions. Pritzker said if there’s another surge in COVID-19 cases, he wants to see that there are enough hospital beds, ICU beds and ventilators available to handle the caseload. “I want as much as everybody else does for everybody to get back to work and for us to move toward normalcy, but I also want to say that I’m not going to do it until we know people are safe, and it isn’t gonna be because some protester has a sign that says ‘Liberate Illinois,’ ” Pritzker said.

  • Cicero nursing home lawsuit: Yet another lawsuit was filed against the state over its COVID-19 response, this time involving its oversight of nursing homes hard hit by the virus. The Town of Cicero filed suit against the state, the Illinois Dept. of Public Health and City View Multicare Center. The town alleges City View did not properly quarantine patients, staff did not wear protective equipment and that the state has not seen any demonstrable assistance from the state to hold City View accountable. Ten residents and staff members have died there. Dr. Ngozi Ezike acknowledged the outbreak at City View, but said that the goal is to mitigate outbreaks inside nursing facilities once cases already exist there.

  • No state layoffs or skipped pension payments: As Pritzker faces a projected $10 billion budget hole over the next two years, on Friday he publicly rejected two possible ways to cut spending: He won’t skip what the state owes in pension payments, and he won’t lay off state employees. “In a pandemic … you need state services more than ever,” Pritzker said. “Think about the damage that is done if we lay off state workers in areas like DCFS or in challenging domestic violence and overcoming that, in dealing with our healthcare system. This is not a time for us to further de-fund and further hollow out government.”

  • Spike in Latino infections: Pritzker acknowledged that communities of color, particularly in Latino neighborhoods, have seen a spike in COVID-19 cases. He said that’s part of the reason why they’ve expanded testing locations in those communities. The Illinois Dept. of Public Health reports that Hispanics make up 14% of COVID-19 deaths in the state and 23% of confirmed cases. 

  • Religious services provision in new order: The new executive order taking effect today specifically mentions that religious services can commence — so long as they don’t violate the definition of a mass gathering, which is more than 10 people in one place. It comes after The Beloved Church in Lena, Ill., filed a federal lawsuit against the state, stating the governor’s executive orders infringed on their constitutional right to assemble. Pritzker said the new language in the executive order effective May 1 doesn’t change the situation for religious services — it just makes explicit what they can and cannot do.

  • Ravinia closure and summer festival cancellations: Ravinia, the famed outdoor music venue, announced the cancellation of its entire 2020 season on Friday. Pritzker said without knowing what the situation will be in July or August, he encouraged other music venues, festivals and local governments to decide whether to cancel their events.

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