Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker Tuesday said he would extend a “stay-at-home” order and statewide school closures until the end of April, acknowledging the state is still weeks away from weathering the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The governor’s embrace of another four weeks of a virtual state shutdown came as Illinois’ COVID-19 death toll surpassed another daily record. State public health officials confirmed another 26 deaths Tuesday, bringing the total to 99.
With another 937 new cases, the overall state caseload now rests at 5,994, a near doubling since Friday with an expected spike in cases forecast by Pritzker’s administration for between mid and late April.
The governor said he will take formal action Wednesday to extend the state’s emergency declaration, the stay-at-home order and the order closing schools across Illinois beyond their original April 7 expiration dates.
“If we can end these orders earlier, I’ll be the first one to tell you when we can start to make strides toward normalcy again, but that time is not today, and it’s not April 7,” Pritzker said at his daily COVID-19 briefing.
“Illinois has one of the strongest public health systems in the nation, but even so we aren’t immune to this virus’ ability to push our existing capacity beyond its limits,” he said. “We need to maintain our course and keep working to flatten the curve.”
Pritzker said as of March 30, 41% of adult ICU beds are empty in Illinois, a 2 percentage point decrease from the previous week. And 68% of the state’s ventilators are available, a 4% drop from last week.
Pritzker said these are manageable numbers for the moment but are expected to plummet later in the month.
“From all the modeling that we’ve seen, our greatest risk of hitting capacity isn’t right now but weeks from now,” he said. “The virus’ spread is growing. So are its risks. We must not let up now.”
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who joined Pritzker at his Thompson Center press conference, supported the governor’s move to extend the stay-at-home order and said it means closures of the city’s Lakefront, the 606 and other parks will also extend to the end of April.
“This may not be what residents want, but it is what we need,” the mayor said.
“To pretend this crisis is anything less than dangerous, that would not only be irresponsible, but it would be deadly,” Lightfoot said. “The numbers of cases will continue to rise and get worse before it gets better.
The extended stay at home order means all public and private schools in Illinois will now be closed through at least April 30.
Pritzker offered an empathetic message for students “who never envisioned a pandemic derailing their spring semester.”
“I won’t tell you texting and calling each other is the same as hanging out in the hallways, [or that] a Zoom prom is same as a real prom [or] not to be sad about lost plans,” she said. “Don’t beat yourself up over being human.”
The big question now is how much learning will actually take place while students are at home for at least another month. Starting on Tuesday, all school districts are supposed to have firm plans for schooling from home. Currently, some students have access to digital learning with online interactions with their teachers. Others just have hard copy worksheets.
The lack of widespread digital access is a pressing issue in Chicago Public Schools. It is a main reason the school district won’t officially start remote learning until April 13.
The district will use the time before then to distribute more than 100,000 electronic devices to its highest-need students and to get more students access to the internet. In some communities, less than 60% of families have internet access. However, school district leaders know there is no way to entirely bridge the digital divide.
Governor’s message to prison-town hospitals: Pritzker displayed no tolerance for any prison-town hospital wary of admitting COVID-19-sickened inmates. Two state prisons are in a 14-day lockdown because of COVID-19, including Stateville Correctional Center, where the death of one inmate was announced by the state Monday. Another dozen prisoners were reported being hospitalized, including several requiring ventilators, and 77 more inmates with symptoms in isolation. “An incarcerated person is a person, and my administration will not be in the business of claiming one life is worth more than another,” Pritzker said, promising intensive-care treatment and ventilator access to prisoners who needed it. “Hospitals that refuse to take on residents of the Department of Corrections will be called out by name, and those that refuse to operate in accordance to their oath can and will be compelled to do so by law.”
Pritzker mulls over “all mail-in” voting this fall: Pritzker suggested that voting in November’s presidential election will be different than it’s been in the past. “I do think that we’re going to have to look at for the general election the idea that we may have to move to a significant amount, or maybe all, mail-in ballots, or at least giving people the opportunity to do that.” Pritzker said. That decision would have to be approved by the state legislature, which has canceled sessions during the pandemic.
State unemployment funding drying up: Pritzker said the state of Illinois does not have enough resources to pay for all of the unemployment claims coming in, though the federal government increased its payments to states to help with the increased demand. As of Jan. 1, the U.S. Labor Department reported $1.9 billion in Illinois’ unemployment insurance trust fund, from which unemployment benefits are paid to laid-off workers. “I believe we’re going to need more,” the governor said. The state released data last week showing 114,114 people filed for unemployment, an increase of 1,338% from the same week a year ago. Pritzker also said that he expects the federal government will have to do another stimulus package to help state and local governments fill their budget holes.
Update on the infant who died of COVID-19: Illinois Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike said that the investigation into the stunning death of an infant due to COVID-19 continues. She said health officials are partnering with the Centers for Disease Control to track the child’s medical history by talking with pediatricians, the family, the hospital and the medical examiner — including the infant’s immunization history. Ezike has said this was the first known case of an infant dying from COVID-19.
Sixth death related to DuPage County nursing home: State officials Tuesday evening also said that among the newly reported deaths was one linked to the DuPage County nursing home where an outbreak of cases had previously been reported. The death is the sixth at the Chateau Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Willowbrook. Dozens more have been sickened, officials have said.
Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover state government and politics for WBEZ. Follow them on Twitter @davemckinney and @tonyjarnold. Education reporters Susie An and Sarah Karp contributed to this report. Follow WBEZ’s education desk on Twitter @WBEZeducation.