Illinois could have exhausted its supply of hospital beds, intensive-care space and ventilators by next week if not for business and school closures and a stay at home order that Gov. JB Pritzker instituted to slow the spread of COVID-19, the first-term Democratic governor said Tuesday.
That tiny measure of optimism, however, was tempered by the announcement of yet four more COVID-19 deaths in Illinois and 250 more confirmed cases, pushing the total number of people sickened by the pneumonia-like illness to more than 1,500 since January. To date, 16 people in Illinois have now died.
Presiding over a third straight week of daily briefings on the disease, of which he’s attended every one, Pritzker condemned President Trump’s push to ease restrictions and restart the nation’s economy by April 12, predicting such a move could lead to “millions of deaths.”
The governor also warned of a state budget that now might be in fiscal freefall because of the crisis and signaled the possibility he will extend the existing stay at home order, telling weary Illinoisans no end in sight yet exists for when the public-health emergency will loosen its grip here.
“I am trying to follow the science here. I am concerned we may have to extend that deadline,” Pritzker said, referring to the tentative April 7 expiration spelled out in his existing stay at home order. “We have to start to see some movement in the [COVID-19] numbers in the right direction or at least a shaping of the curve that looks like we’re hitting a good spot in that curve. And it’s early. I just can’t tell you anything quite yet.
“The question that everyone wants answered right now is how long is all of this going to last?” Pritzker said. “The honest answer is we don’t yet know. I know that’s hard to accept, but it’s honest, and I’m determined to be honest with you above all else.”
On Tuesday, his administration laid out a series of worst-case scenario projections demonstrating the effect taking no mitigation steps would have had on the state’s rapidly growing COVID-19 caseload.
Next week, had no actions been taken to address the virus’ spread, hospitals would have needed more than 830 intensive-care beds and nearly 420 ventilators than currently exist in order to treat the sickest patients, forecasts released by Pritzker’s administration showed.
In two weeks, medical centers would need around 9,400 additional intensive-care beds for the sickest patients that don’t exist today. They would need over 28,000 additional beds for people who aren’t as sick, but still need to be hospitalized. And about 4,700 additional ventilators to help the most critically-ill breathe.
“This is untenable,” Pritzker said. “What we’ve seen in other countries of COVID-19s’ ability to overwhelm the system could happen here too. We are not immune. But again, those are worst-case scenario projections with no interventions. Instead what we have done already in Illinois is put into place a two-pronged approach to make sure a worst-case scenario doesn’t become our reality.”
The state has hustled to put restrictions in place aimed to keep people separated, which now amounts to the only real line of defense against the virus. Illinois schools are closed. Mass gatherings have been canceled. Restaurants are carry-out and delivery only. Pritzker ordered Illinois residents to stay in their homes, though they can leave to buy essentials, like food and gas, or seek medical care.
Nevertheless, hospitals are racing to scale up after years of keeping scores of patient beds empty because fewer people needed them for a variety of reasons. Health insurance companies, for one, want people treated in the cheapest setting, which is usually a doctor’s office or a pharmacy clinic rather than an expensive hospital.
In the worst-case scenario, the state would earmark several dozen existing hospitals to treat almost only COVID-19 patients, and move non-COVID patients to other hospitals, including now-closed medical centers the state might reopen, Pritzker said..
Of the state’s 209 hospitals, almost 1/3 have set up triage centers outside their facilities to screen potential COVID-19 patients. The state is working with another 26 medical centers to do the same.
Rush University Medical Center on the Near West Side is among hospitals that have ramped up quickly, transforming entire units to treat just COVID-19 patients and canceling elective surgeries to free up beds and supplies.
“We did all of this to create greater capacity to care for critical patients, who just about every international expert believes are coming,” said Rush CEO Dr. Omar Lateef, who appeared Tuesday with Pritzker. “We believe it’s coming. … In just about every scenario in the future, the situation gets worse before it gets better for our city and our community. “
After needling President Trump for failing to use the Defense Production Act to spur more manufacturers to make life-saving supplies, Pritzker on Tuesday said the president promised to deliver 300 ventilators and 300,000 N95 masks to Illinois in the coming days.
That’s still just a fraction of what Illinois needs. N95 masks are among the so-called protective personal equipment, as well as gloves, gowns and goggles, needed to protect health care workers on the front lines from catching and spreading COVID-19.
There’s a global shortage as states and countries compete for this critical protective gear, causing health care workers — including in the Chicago area — a lot of anxiety.
Meanwhile, the four new deaths announced Tuesday include a Chicago resident in his 50s, a DuPage County resident in her 90s and two Cook County residents both in their 60s, though the pair’s genders were not identified. So far, five of the deaths have involved people in their 80s, four in their 70s, three in their 60s, and two each in their 50s and 90s, the state confirmed.
And of those who have tested positive for COVID-19, more than half are white, one third are black, and the rest are Hispanic and Asian. So far 16% of people have needed to be hospitalized; 4% were admitted to ICUs. Of those who have died, the majority were older than 60.
“We see these sobering numbers, and we thank the governor for the aggressive steps that he has taken to try to reduce these stats,” said Dr. Ngozi Ezike, who runs the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Pritzker once again showed his frustration over the lack of testing available — a nationwide issue — to confirm and rule out potential COVID-19 cases. He said the state is accelerating testing and hopes to provide more than 4,300 tests a day within two weeks.
That’s through several efforts to make testing more widely available: the state’s first drive-thru testing site on Chicago’s Northwest Side; three federal sites in the suburbs; and hospitals being able to provide more testing in-house.
Still, this message remains: Because of short supplies, Illinois is prioritizing testing for the sickest patients. Those who have mild symptoms should stay home and isolate themselves.
Meanwhile, after cooling tensions with the White House over its response to the pandemic, Pritzker made clear Tuesday he is unhappy with Trump’s suggestion that national restrictions on movement and business closures could be relaxed by Easter, a move public-health experts almost universally disdain.
“The president is not taking into account the true damage that this will do to our country if we see truly millions of people die, and that’s what I think would happen and that’s what the scientists and doctors tell us would happen,” Pritzker said.
Pritzker was also asked about the condition of the state budget, which is being deluged by likely steep drops in tax revenues and an unknown jump in COVID-19-related costs. The governor was anything but optimistic both for this year’s spending plan or the one he proposed for Fiscal Year 2021 last month.
“There’s no doubt any estimates made even two months ago would be not useful at this point,” Pritzker said. “I don’t think anybody expected where we’d be today.”
Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @davemckinney. Kristen Schorsch covers public health and Cook County politics for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @kschorsch.