Illinois’ Coronavirus Peak Date Is Extended As COVID-19 Creeps Into Gov. Pritzker’s Inner Circle

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

Illinois’ Coronavirus Peak Date Is Extended As COVID-19 Creeps Into Gov. Pritzker’s Inner Circle

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Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker confirmed Monday that a senior aide with whom he had close contact tested positive for COVID-19, as his administration unveiled new modeling that shows the virus’ peak may hit in mid-June, a month later than earlier forecasts.

The development involving a member of his braintrust, which for two months had operated in a seemingly antiseptic bubble in the James R. Thompson Center, forced the governor and about 20 staffers into self-quarantine at their homes for an undetermined period.

Pritzker himself was tested on Sunday, the second time in less than a week, and results showed that he is not carrying the coronavirus.

“I feel fine; I’ve tested negative. So I don’t think at least at the moment there’s any real danger,” the governor said during an online briefing with reporters that he staged from an office in his Gold Coast home.

The governor would not identify the staffer but said the aide had been asymptomatic when routine tests were administered last Tuesday to the governor and his employees, who have been operating out of the Thompson Center. By Saturday, word arrived that the staffer had tested positive for the virus, even though the person still was not displaying any symptoms.

Pritzker said the employee worked on the same 15th floor suite that houses the governor’s office, where protocols in recent weeks dictated that staffers wear facial coverings while at work. The governor said the aide’s office was “down the hall” from his.

“I don’t have regular everyday contact with that person directly, although that person would … every day sit in a large meeting room where we all were socially-distancing,” the governor said.

Pritzker’s reluctance to identify what now is the second employee in his office to test positive for COVID-19 stands in contrast with President Trump on transparency. Over the past few days, the White House has confirmed Trump’s military valet and Vice President Mike Pence’s press secretary both tested positive for the coronavirus.

“We don’t want to reveal the name of the person who tested positive,” the governor said. “That would be a breach of their privacy. However, they have given us all of their contacts, all of the locations they were in.”

Cleaning crews are expected at the downtown state office building twice this week to sanitize both the 15th and 16th floors, an aide said.

The development came as the governor updated modeling that shows COVID-19 stubbornly avoiding a peak in Illinois, prompting forecasters to estimate that a drop in cases and hospitalizations might not happen until mid-June. Up until Monday, Pritzker’s administration had predicted that peak would hit in mid-May.

“Everyone tracking our state’s data has likely seen that on a statewide basis we haven’t passed our peak yet. We have seen more stability in our numbers, but so far, we are not seeing significant declines in key metrics like hospitalization,” the governor said.

“In many ways, this news is disheartening. We have made great progress, but it’s forced us to remain at a moderated, though still high level of key metrics for this extended period. A pushing out of our estimated peak is a natural consequence of flattening the curve,” Pritzker said.

On Monday, Pritzker’s administration announced 54 additional fatalities, bringing the statewide COVID-19 death toll to 3,459 since state officials confirmed the first Illinoisan succumbed to the coronavirus on March 17.

“What we’ve been aiming to do since early March is slow down the exponential rate of transmission. When we do that, it leads to a slower rate of infections over a longer period of time, giving our healthcare system the ability to treat those who have complications and giving our pharmaceutical researchers time to develop effective treatments and possibly a vaccine,” the governor said.

COVID hospitalization rates are among several benchmarks that Pritzker has established as part of a reopening plan he unveiled last week. Another measure under the plan, which carves the state into four separate regions, is the rate at which people are testing positive for COVID-19.

The governor expressed optimism that the three downstate regions could move into a less-restrictive phase by the end of May. But he said Chicago and the collar counties have not been showing the same progress, raising prospects that Illinois’ most populous region could remain locked in his stay-at-home order into next month.

The positivity rate in northeastern Illinois stood at 22.3% as of Friday, which is nearly quadruple the percentage of people testing positive for COVID-19 in some parts of downstate. Under the governor’s reopening plan, each geographic sector limits people testing positive for COVID-19 at a rate of 20% or less.

But the governor signaled in the most direct terms yet that even if some regions of the state do advance, he isn’t prepared to lift all of the restrictions statewide when his current stay-at-home order expires May 30.

“Lifting all of our mitigation at the end of May would likely lead to a second wave of outbreak in each and every one of our four regions,” Pritzker said.

In other COVID-19 developments:

  • Supreme Court setback: Without explanation, the Illinois Supreme Court rejected a push by Attorney General Kwame Raoul for the high court to validate the governor’s use of emergency powers during the public-health crisis. Raoul’s actions were aimed at short-circuiting a series of lawsuits challenging the governor’s stay-at-home order, including a Clay County judge’s decision that exempted state Rep. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, from the governor’s stay-at-home order. Pritzker and Raoul had hoped the justices would issue a ruling that Bailey’s since-withdrawn lawsuit and others were legally out of line. Instead, based on Monday’s decision, the court is signaling it wants challenges to Pritzker’s authority to travel through the traditional appellate court route, rather than going directly to the Supreme Court. “It’s an unusual circumstance that the Supreme Court would, in fact, take a case directly from circuit court and not let it go through the normal process,” Pritzker said. “But I think it was the right thing to do for the (Attorney General) to seek the Supreme Court’s intervention. But the Supreme Court is not saying they’re not going to rule on this ever. They just don’t want to skip over the appellate court. That’s my understanding.”

  • Remdesivir shipments to Illinois hospitals: Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike announced “exciting, good news” Monday related to a possible treatment for COVID-19. The state received a federal shipment of 140 cases of the new FDA-approved antiviral medication Remdesivir on Saturday, which was shipped to 14 hospitals around the state. Though because each case contains only enough medication to treat about five patients, Ezike said the state established criteria around hospitalization and intensive care data to distribute the medicine equitably. A report by WTTW indicated Rush University Medical Center in Chicago got the most of any Illinois hospital with 34 cases, followed by Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn with 25 cases.

  • Governor non-committal to property tax relief: Throughout the pandemic, Pritzker has repeatedly said that any property tax relief for needy state residents should come from local governments that collect that tax money. But on Monday, upon hearing that some state legislators are considering a property relief package, Pritzker would not commit to signing a bill if it were to pass the House and Senate, which are currently adjourned indefinitely. “We certainly need to consider everything that we can to alleviate the burden on people across the state,” Pritzker said. “When you decide for example not to collect property taxes, you’re affecting local governments and their ability to deliver services. But of course I know there are people struggling perhaps to pay their property taxes. I think all that should be considered by the legislature. And I’m hopeful the legislature would be in session soon so they can consider that, and it’s something I would consider, too.”

  • COVID outbreak at Manteno veterans’ home: The state-run Manteno Veterans’ Home is dealing with rash of coronavirus cases. Ezike confirmed 40 people at the facility have tested positive for COVID-19, including 30 residents and 10 staff. The facility housed 285 residents, according to the most recent Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs annual report. One resident at the state-run LaSalle Veterans’ Home tested positive but has since tested negative. No cases have been reported at the Quincy Veterans’ Home, but testing is scheduled there on Wednesday.

  • Taking a haircut: Pritzker was again asked whether he’s had a visit with his barber since ordering hair salons closed to stem the spread of COVID-19. “I have a pair of clippers that I use, that I’ve been using on the sides of my head,” Pritzker said. “I asked my 15-year-old to give a little buzz on the back of my hair, and that’s it. I haven’t had a haircut other than that. But I’m glad that people think it looks like I’ve had a haircut.” Later, when asked about whether he favored extending any state relief to sidelined barbers and salon stylists, the governor recommended they apply for state unemployment benefits until their industry comes back online.

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