Illinois Governor JB Pritzker Says His Arsenal Against COVID-19 Is ‘Nearly Exhausted’

"Our strongest weapon against COVID-19 is you,” Pritzker said, pleading for Illinoisans to stay indoors.

Gov. JB Prtizker with text overlay that reads COVID-19 Official Updates
Illustration by Paula Friedrich / WBEZ
Gov. JB Prtizker with text overlay that reads COVID-19 Official Updates
Illustration by Paula Friedrich / WBEZ

Illinois Governor JB Pritzker Says His Arsenal Against COVID-19 Is ‘Nearly Exhausted’

"Our strongest weapon against COVID-19 is you,” Pritzker said, pleading for Illinoisans to stay indoors.

As Illinois retrofits another shuttered hospital for an expected surge in COVID-19 patients, Gov. JB Pritzker said Thursday he has few tools left to slow the lethal virus’ march across the state beyond encouraging strict adherence to his “stay-at-home” order.

With the two-week anniversary of that order approaching Saturday, Pritzker made a pointed appeal to Illinoisans to remain indoors and essentially said it is now a waiting game for the state as a tsunami of new COVID-19 cases are expected to build in the coming weeks.

The steady climb continued unrestrained Thursday as state public health officials disclosed 715 new cases and 16 more COVID-19 deaths, cutting across all age groups between the 30s and 90s. The state’s total caseload now is at 7,695, with 157 deaths.

“In terms of state actions, state orders, we’ve nearly exhausted every avenue available. Now, the rest is up to you. Our strongest weapon against COVID-19 is you,” Pritzker said at his daily briefing, which was part bad news and part pep rally.

“Already, the vast, vast majority of you understand how critically important your actions are in our greater social-distancing efforts. Almost all of you are doing it right," he said. “I see all that you’re doing to stop the spread. I see the people who are staying home. I see the emptier streets. I see the essential workers keeping people fed and safe and healthy and keeping their social distance.

“I see you fighting for each other, Illinois. I see you as tough as you are kind, as courageous as you are creative,” Pritzker continued. “I see you taking care of one another, and I’m very, very proud.”

On Tuesday, Pritzker announced plans to extend a "stay-at-home" order in place since March 21 to the end of April. Previously, the governor ordered bars and restaurants to close, emptied schools across the state and banned large gatherings.

The state hasn’t said explicitly when it expects the worst of the pandemic to hit. But modeling by the University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation forecasts April 20 as the day on which hospital resources will be spread the thinnest, with daily death totals reaching 109 that day. Overall, by early August, the university’s model predicts nearly 3,400 COVID-19 deaths in Illinois.

Pritzker’s administration has taken the lead in Illinois in building out field hospitals to handle an overflow of COVID-19 patients and announced a fourth facility to be used for that purpose: the shuttered Westlake Hospital in Melrose Park.

The 230-bed hospital closed last summer after filing for bankruptcy, claiming in court filings in February 2019 that it was losing more than $1 million a month and that less than half of its beds were occupied..

Chicago and the collar counties also will have a 3,000-bed makeshift facility available at McCormick Place, with additional beds at the former Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin and the MetroSouth Health Center in south suburban Blue Island. Those three, plus Westlake, will be fully opened by late April for those with less severe cases of COVID-19, the governor said.

“These temporary facilities are to support, not replace, our existing medical infrastructure,” Pritzker said. “Patients will be directed first to our existing hospitals, and if they are lower acuity, they will be transferred to these alternative sites.”

There were several other COVID-19 developments that both Pritzker and U.S. Senator Dick Durbin outlined Thursday:

  • Abbott Labs is "delivering" on its promise: Illinois received its first shipment of COVID-19 test kits from the North Chicago pharmaceutical company, which won emergency federal approval in late March for its new testing system that can show results in as little as five minutes. Shortly after the testing system was approved by the Food and Drug Administration, Pritzker had made a direct appeal to Abbott for the test kits and confirmed Thursday that an initial batch of 15 machines had arrived. The governor said Abbott told him it regarded its home state of Illinois as a “priority,” and he praised the company for “delivering on that promise.” The governor said the state still isn’t in a position to test everyone it wants but characterized the machines’ importance in helping the state collect data. “We want to make sure that wherever they go, the data is available to us, so we know how many people are contracting coronavirus in what locations,” he said.

  • Reaching out to China: Pritzker says he’s called the CEOs of shipping companies, airlines and even used his personal connections to try to get more personal protective equipment shipped from Chinese manufacturers to Illinois. “The Chinese government has been a little bit difficult at putting PPE at the head of the line to be shipped to the United States,” Pritzker said. The governor also said cargo on the so-called “air bridge” from China to the U.S. that carries the much-needed medical supplies is sometimes going to private companies and is not necessarily prioritized for states to use. “I asked directly, ‘Could I put goods that are bound for Illinois that we are acquiring PPE for the people of Illinois on the air bridge?' ” Pritzker said. “And essentially the answer has been, ‘no.’ ”

  • Improvement at Stateville Prison: Dr. Ngozi Ezike, the director of the state’s public health department, said three of the 19 people who had tested positive while in Stateville Correctional Center have recovered and left the hospital. “These are elderly people and multiple other medical conditions that do complicate the course,” Ezike said, noting that these cases should be an encouraging sign about the recovery rate.

  • Trump administration’s "profound failure": Pritzker squarely laid the blame for the lack of a federal response at President Trump’s doorstep. He was among the first governors in the nation to order residents to stay at home. Now, states that have held off on similar orders are coming around. “I take no pride in being earlier than others, but I’m honestly upset about the lack of early action on a national basis,” Pritzker said. “This will go down in history as a profound failure of our national government.”

  • COVID-19 cases are in Chicago-area, federal VA facilities: Durbin disclosed 51 COVID-19 cases at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago, including one death; seven cases at Hines VA Medical Center in Proviso Township; and 20 cases at Lovell VA Medical Center in North Chicago. The disclosure came as Durbin pressed the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to funnel more test kits, personal protective equipment and better telehealth services into the facilities. “I will continue to push the VA to act immediately to address any possible shortages of resources,” Durbin said.

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