As Illinois faces a record surge in coronavirus cases, Gov. JB Pritzker said on Sunday he is not considering an aggressive, statewide revival of more restrictions — like the stay-at-home order he issued in March — and he will continue relying on a targeted response to specific regions where outbreaks are growing.
“On a statewide basis, we haven’t looked at increasing mitigations,” the governor said in an interview on CNN’s State of the Union.
The situation in Illinois, and much of the Midwest, has become increasingly alarming, public health experts say. Illinois has twice broken new records this month for the number of known cases reported within 24 hours.
On Sunday, state officials announced 4,245 new coronavirus cases and 22 additional deaths. Illinois faces a weekly average of 3,501 cases per day, according to The New York Times. That’s up 73% from the average two weeks ago. Health experts say the rolling, seven-day average of cases is one of the best ways of measuring trends during the pandemic.
Pritzker’s administration has adopted a plan that splits the state into 11 regions. If a region’s outbreak hits certain benchmarks, like hitting an 8% positivity rate, then officials will revive more restrictions. Pritzker acknowledged that many regions, if not all, could all move backwards if the current outbreak grows out of control.
Pritzker on Sunday said Illinois is heading into a “new wave” of infections, which comes at a perilous time as temperatures dip and people are increasingly staying indoors, providing more opportunities for the virus to spread.
‘Everybody is tired of it’
Appearing on CNN, the governor blamed the recent surge on pandemic fatigue and growing outbreaks in nearby Wisconsin, Indiana and Iowa. Pritzker also blasted President Donald Trump for “modeling bad behavior.”
“He doesn’t wear a mask in public. He has rallies where they don’t encourage people to wear masks in public,” Pritzker said. “Truly, this is now rhetoric that people understand, and particularly in rural areas in my state, that, well, the president doesn’t wear a mask, we don’t need to wear a mask, it’s not that dangerous.”
Pritzker appeared on CNN in response to criticism of his leadership, leveled by Trump during a campaign rally in Janesville, Wisconsin on Saturday. At one point, Trump slammed Pritzker, saying Illinois “could use a new governor” and businesses should be allowed to reopen.
Dr. Robert Murphy, a professor of medicine and infectious disease at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, said lifting even more restrictions would be disastrous right now.
“Everybody is tired of it,” Murphy said of the pandemic. “And so you have that pressure to just open up, and that’s just going to make everything worse. And from an epidemiological standpoint, I can’t support that. And I can’t recommend that. It’s a big mistake. Every time you do that, you pay with a life. You’re going to kill somebody.”
Murphy agrees with Pritzker that pandemic fatigue is playing a role in the recent surge facing Illinois and much of the nation. But Murphy said other factors include the reopening of schools to in-person classes and the relaxation of restrictions regarding bars and restaurants.
Last month, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced bars that don’t serve food can reopen, and restaurants could serve more indoor customers. Since then, infections have steadily grown. The city has a 5.2% positivity rate and is seeing a weekly average of 508 cases per day, according to data released on Friday.
Public health experts warn that the situation in Illinois and throughout the U.S. could get much worse. One notable model estimates the U.S. could reach more than 394,000 deaths from COVID-19 by Feb. 1. That model, from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, also projects Illinois’ death toll could grow to more than 18,000 in the next four months. To put that in perspective, the state has reported a little over 9,000 deaths during the past seven months.
When it comes to cases, the model projects Illinois could hit a peak of nearly 17,000 cases per day in late November. That estimate includes people who are not tested.
But Murphy said local officials can gain control over the outbreak without having to resort to another stay-at-home order by mandating face masks and placing limits on social gatherings, like in Spain, where gatherings are now limited to six people. And Murphy signaled optimism, saying that the U.S. will be in much better shape a year from now when a vaccine may be widely available.
“I’ve studied pandemics, and they all end,” Murphy said. “Every one of them ends. The question is: How long does it take to end? And how many people will die?”
Hunter Clauss is a digital editor and writer of WBEZ’s Rundown newsletter. You can follow him at @whuntah.