Stymied By The Feds, The Pritzker Administration Secures COVID-19 Gear On Its Own

The state purchased millions of masks urgently needed by health care workers on the COVID-19 frontlines.

Govenor JP Pritzker with Text Card that says COVID19 Official Update
Photo by Associated Press/Graphic by Paula Friedrich/WBEZ
Govenor JP Pritzker with Text Card that says COVID19 Official Update
Photo by Associated Press/Graphic by Paula Friedrich/WBEZ

Stymied By The Feds, The Pritzker Administration Secures COVID-19 Gear On Its Own

The state purchased millions of masks urgently needed by health care workers on the COVID-19 frontlines.

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Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker announced Monday the state purchased millions of masks urgently needed by health care workers on the COVID-19 frontlines and partnered with companies to produce even more after President Trump’s administration met only a minuscule fraction of the state’s need.

The move came after Pritzker and Trump needled one another on Twitter over the weekend about the White House’s refusal to mobilize manufacturers on a national scale to produce lifesaving supplies through a federal law called the Defense Production Act.

The step could address shortages and stop states from competing with one another and running up prices for scarce medical equipment.

“Illinois is acquiring [personal protective equipment] to compensate for what we haven’t received in our federal requests, but we are doing so while running up against obstacles that should not exist,” Pritzker told reporters Monday. “I have medical professionals and first responders begging for things that need to keep them safe.”

This includes masks, gowns, gloves and face shields that doctors, nurses and others need to protect themselves when treating patients, as Illinois races to contain the spread of the new coronavirus.

As the state’s COVID-19 death toll rose yet again Monday, the battle between Pritzker and Trump showed signs of cooling with the two talking on the phone shortly after noon. The governor said Trump showed newfound willingness toward helping Illinois.

“The president was very responsive frankly. He didn’t so much like the idea of invoking the Defense Production Act, but he did say, ‘What do you need? Let me see if I can get that for you,’ and I gave him some numbers,” Pritzker said.

“I told him what we’d ordered from the government already, and he said, ‘Let me work on that.’ And so I really thought it seems like he’s being very responsive for what I asked for, and I hope we’ll be able to receive those items in very short order,” Pritzker said.

As Illinois entered day three of the governor’s stay-at-home order, Pritzker’s administration announced 236 more confirmed COVID-19 cases in Illinois, bringing the total to 1,285. Additionally, the state reported three more deaths in Cook County: two men in their 80s and a man in his 90s.

So far, 12 have died in Illinois from the virus that produces a sometimes lethal form of pneumonia, particularly among the elderly and those with compromised immune systems or other underlying health problems.

State Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said Monday that between 15 and 20% of those testing positive for COVID-19 have required hospitalization in Illinois, while about 5% have required treatment in hospital intensive-care units. ICUs are for the sickest patients.

“Our statistics have looked common to what the global statistics have been,” she said.

Of the dozen who have died, all have been in their 50s or older, and nine have come from Cook County. Seven have been men and five women. Five have been in their 80s, four in their 70s, and one apiece in their 90s, 60s and 50s, according to earlier state health department announcements.

The governor’s emphasis on protective gear is aimed at addressing the high anxiety among doctors and nurses as they blow through masks, gowns and goggles as suspected and confirmed COVID-19 cases climb.

Health care workers nationwide have drawn attention to the issue with the #GetMePPE hashtag on Twitter, a nod to personal protective equipment that’s in short supply. Some have posted photos of the one N95 respirator mask they get and decontaminate often because there aren’t enough new ones to use for every patient they treat.

Illinois has received some protective equipment for health care workers from the Strategic National Stockpile, the nation’s biggest supplier in public health emergencies when local supplies dry up.

But the federally-managed stockpile has provided a fraction of Illinois’ requests.

For example, on March 6, the state requested 3.9 million pieces of protective gear, including surgical masks, N95 respirators that are key to keeping out airborne particles, gowns, gloves and face shields, according to a spokeswoman for Pritzker.

About a week later, the state received only around 433,500 pieces — around 11% of its total ask, according to Pritzker’s office. Illinois put in another request on March 20 for 10.8 million pieces of equipment and ready-to-eat meals, and expects to receive another similarly small shipment from the federal government.

A spokesperson for the National Strategic Stockpile said they could not comment on Illinois’ requests.

Pritzker has taken his plea for more protective gear for health care workers here to national airwaves. On Sunday, he told CNN ‘it’s a wild west’ as Illinois competes with other states and countries for protective gear on the open market, and overpaying as a result.

On Monday, Pritzker said that Illinois first responders are “begging” for protective gear. He announced a series of measures that leaders in the state are taking to find more equipment on their own.

In a new partnership, manufacturers and biotech industries are repurposing facilities to make not just N95 masks, gowns and gloves, but also ventilators in high demand and short supply. Ventilators are machines that help people breathe. Doctors across the globe are rushing to get more for COVID-19 patients who are currently critically ill or could become really sick.

So far, the state has inked contracts to buy 2.5 million N95 masks, 1 million disposable surgical masks, 11,000 gloves and 10,000 personal protection kits, Pritzker said.

“This is a huge, important step to protect health care workers,” said Danny Chun, a spokesman for the Illinois Health and Hospital Association, the main lobbying group for health systems in the state.

Still, he cautioned that it’s impossible to know how much protective gear nurses, doctors and others will need.

“We don’t know how widespread the virus is going to be, and we don’t know what the impact of the stay-at-home order is going to be,” Chun said.

Pritzker has ordered that most Illinois residents stay in their homes to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

The IHA is among numerous organizations that are calling for donations of protective gear.

The Chicago Department of Public Health makes its own supply requests to the federal government for the city’s hospitals. A spokesman did not provide what supplies the department has requested.

In a separate news conference, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said: “We work on this issue of making sure that we’ve got the right kinds of supplies for any kind of emergency all year round, and that system is working now and has kicked into high gear.”

Kristen Schorsch covers public health and Cook County politics for WBEZ. Follow her @kschorsch. Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover state politics for WBEZ. Follow them @davemckinney and @tonyjarnold. WBEZ City Hall reporter Claudia Morell contributed to this report.