‘We Are Not Where We Need To Be’: Pritzker Says Illinois Is Still Not Meeting Its COVID-19 Testing Goal

Governor cites failings by a private contractor and the federal government for causing his goal of 10,000 COVID-19 tests per day not to be met.

Official Updates COVID-19 Pritzker
AP Photo
Official Updates COVID-19 Pritzker
AP Photo

‘We Are Not Where We Need To Be’: Pritzker Says Illinois Is Still Not Meeting Its COVID-19 Testing Goal

Governor cites failings by a private contractor and the federal government for causing his goal of 10,000 COVID-19 tests per day not to be met.

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker partially blamed the federal government and a California contractor Wednesday for causing the state to miss its goal of performing 10,000 COVID-19 tests per day — a vital step to monitor and control the spread of the deadly virus.

That came as Illinois set a new daily record for COVID-19 deaths. Still, the state’s public health chief said the growth rate is not exploding exponentially, giving a possible “glimmers of hope” that the crisis soon may begin easing up.

For a month, the state’s Democratic governor has joined the national chorus of those complaining President Trump’s administration has failed to meet its promise of making millions of tests available to fully accommodate states, health care workers, first responders and those showing symptoms of the disease.

Pritzker said Illinois obtained 6,334 test results during the past 24 hours — its highest daily level to date — but it’s still almost 40% shy of where the governor has said the state needs to be to get a proper handle on COVID-19.

“No matter how much is beyond our control, the buck stops with me, and we are still not where we need to be on the testing front,” the governor told reporters at his daily briefing on the virus.

Pritzker spoke about how the state acquired five high-volume testing machines from California-based ThermoFisher Scientific. Each device was supposed to be able to process 200 tests per hour, but he said they have failed to meet that volume and are being taken out of rotation until problems are resolved.

“We are still not getting the level of output we want to see from these machines,” the governor said. “More importantly, these tests are not producing valid results in a way that meets our exacting standards.”

The Fremont, California-based company issued a statement Wednesday evening in response to a WBEZ inquiry about the governor’s comments, saying the company was working with the governor.

“We understand Governor Pritkzer’s sense of urgency and share his commitment to protect the public by maximizing the number of diagnostic tests for COVID-19 that can be successfully completed each day,” the statement read. “We are continuing to provide staff and resources to the state of Illinois to assure that they can reach their goal.”

Pritzker also singled out the federal government’s failings on the testing front.

Labs the federal government is using to do COVID-19 testing take between seven and 10 days to produce results, too long for meaningful use, the governor said.

Pritzker also cited a recent federal disbursement of new rapid-testing machines developed by North Chicago-based Abbott Labs, which is sending equipment directly to Pritzker’s administration separate from the federal allotment as well.

The governor said the federal government’s distribution to Illinois of 15 Abbott machines fell short. The machines could be helpful, he said, but the feds didn’t send enough tests with them.

“This could be a huge help, but there’s a catch. The federal government included only a total of 120 tests. That’s eight tests per machine for all of Illinois. But I assure you that we will leave no stone unturned to get the tests that we need to run those machines at full bore,” Pritzker said.

“I lay out these obstacles not to complain or to point fingers but to be fully transparent with all of you as to the challenges that we face, and how we are working to overcome them,” Pritzker said. “It’s on us. I’m also hopeful that this transparency will shine a light on some of what’s taking place across the country and will encourage the White House to remove the obstacles that are blocking our path forward and to work together.”

His focus on testing came as state public health officials disclosed 1,529 new COVID-19 cases in Illinois, including 82 more deaths. That brings the total coronavirus caseload in the state to 15,078, with 462 deaths.

State Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike nonetheless wove a thread of optimism into those numbers, noting that the level of infections are not rising as explosively and offering what she called “glimmers of hope” that the first wave of the pandemic might be showing signs of easing its grip on Illinois.

“These are our highest numbers to date,” she said of Wednesday’s totals. “And although numbers are still increasing, I will tell you that the rate at which they’re increasing is less, and that is a good sign. We’re not seeing the exponential growth that we were seeing before.

“But even as there may be some glimmers of hope, I say that physical distancing has to, must continue to, be the way that we reduce the spread,” she said.

The hint of hope coincided with adjustments made Wednesday in a widely watched public model being maintained by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, an entity funded in part through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Earlier this week, the university had estimated more than 3,600 COVID-19 deaths in Illinois by August but moved those projections downward to slightly less than 1,600 on Wednesday.

Some in Pritzker’s administration cast doubts on the accuracy of the latest revisions, because the university logged only one death in Illinois on Tuesday when the state announced 73. Still, when asked about the new assessment, the governor didn’t completely throw cold water on it.

“The models that show that the death rate might be lower than expected, that the hospitalization rate might be lower than expected, gives me optimism. There are [an] equal number of models out there that show something different,” he said.

In other COVID-19 developments from Pritzker’s briefing:

  • CDC gives back-to-work guidelines: Pritzker said it’s “good news” to hear the federal government may loosen restrictions on allowing people, particularly first responders, to return to work if they have recovered from the coronavirus and no longer have symptoms. “This will help us going forward with the re-starting of the economy,” Pritzker said. He cautioned, however, that it’s still unclear whether someone who’s had COVID-19 could still carry the virus and spread it to others. On a related question, Pritzker said it’s “devastating” to see shops and restaurants closed due to his stay at home order, but that he’s expecting the federal government to enact another stimulus package to help small businesses.

  • The Pritzker-led COVID-19 charity goes into full swing: More than $5.5 million in grants have been distributed to non-profits around Illinois by the recently-created Illinois COVID-19 Response Fund. That money is going to organizations that specifically support residents who need food, shelter, healthcare or financial support to pay for utilities. The fund, which is chaired by the governor’s sister, former U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, has raised $28 million from almost 2,000 donors. (In the interest of full disclosure, Ms. Pritzker’s foundation, the Pritzker Traubert Family Foundation, has supported WBEZ.) Thirty-one groups from across the state will receive grants worth up to $250,000, according to the fund. The governor, his wife, MK Pritzker, and their foundation have donated a combined $4 million to the fund.

  • There’s no statewide curfew on liquor sales for now: After Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced she’s shutting down liquor sales after 9 p.m., Pritzker was asked if he would consider expanding that idea statewide. The governor didn’t say whether he supported Lightfoot’s new order, but indicated local governments should be the ones to decide what’s best. Under the governor’s stay at home order, liquor sales are deemed essential.

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