SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois state Capitol will be without members of the General Assembly next week after the Legislature on Wednesday canceled session amid growing concerns of the spread of coronavirus.
“Given the recommendations for social distancing as a safeguard to slow the spread of this virus, the Illinois Senate is going to do its part,” Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, said in a statement.
The Legislature had been scheduled to return to the Capitol on Wednesday, March 18. It has now canceled sessions planned for March 18, 19 and 20. There has been no decision on sessions scheduled beyond next week.
“We will constantly monitor the situation and make future decisions based on best practices and advice from the state’s public health and emergency preparedness professionals,” Harmon said.
The number of COVID-19 cases in Illinois is now at 25 people, state health officials said during a news conference Wednesday afternoon, including a third case from outside Cook County.
“We are actively investigating these identified cases now,” said Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health. “We are investigating the travel histories, the exposures, trying to identify any close contacts.”
The new cases are a Lake County resident in his 50s, and five Cook County residents that include a man in his 80s, two men in their 70s, one in his 40s and a woman in her 50s. Ezike said it is unclear if any of the new cases were from community spread, which is when the virus cannot be linked to travel to an affected area or contact with a known infected person.
Three prior cases are suspected to have come from community spread, including a McHenry County teen and a Kane County woman in her 60s that were announced Tuesday. A Cook County man in his 60s who is in “very serious, critical condition,” according to Ezike, was announced last weekend.
“There are likely other individuals in the community who have not been detected,” Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said in a morning news conference.
She stressed, however, that the virus is not spreading widely and most people impacted have mild symptoms and completely recover. Tests of 76 people in the state are still outstanding as of Wednesday, according to IDPH.
Officials are working to contain the virus by limiting or postponing large gatherings, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classify as gatherings of more than 250 people.
“We are looking closely at this new guidance,” Pritzker said, while trying to cause the least disruption to people’s daily lives.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Wednesday morning that this weekend’s St. Patrick’s Day parades will be postponed “out of an abundance of caution.”
Pritzker said he is talking with the owners of Chicago’s professional sports teams, as well as their leagues and the city. The Chicago White Sox are scheduled to host their first home game on March 26, while the Cubs open their home season on April 8.
“Even if you yourself are young and healthy, your neighbors, your family members, even the people who walk the same streets of your community as you do, might not be,” Pritzker said. “It’s on all of us to minimize spread and keep Illinois healthy.”
Pritzker also said the state is “giving very strict guidance” to nursing homes, including discouraging visits from family members and encouraging daily tests of health care workers.
He also advised voters to vote by mail in Tuesday’s primary election. The last day to request a mail-in ballot is Thursday, however he has asked county boards of election to extend that deadline.
An official in Secretary of State Jesse White’s office said permits for events inside the Statehouse, as well as tours, have been canceled. Lobbyists have also been asked to cancel events. The building is still open to the public.
Governor criticizes federal response
Pritzker continued to blast federal officials on Wednesday, further criticizing the Trump administration’s response to the virus.
“We’re not getting enough tests,” he said. “This is a result of the CDC having made a decision early on to not let the best research hospitals and institutions around the United States develop their own tests.”
He said Illinois has thousands of tests, but health workers can’t test as many people as they would like. He also said federal officials told him a commercial testing lab that could make millions of tests would open by last Friday, but it has yet to open.
“We need a lot more help, and you hear very little,” he said. “I’m being as loud as I can on this subject and I think that they are going to be reactive to it.”
Pritzker also directly called out President Donald Trump.
“When the president wears his red hat in a CDC facility and talks about his own brilliance around being able to do research to determine an answer to this problem, I mean, he’s not taking it seriously. And you see what he tweets about this,” the governor said.
Pritzker announced Wednesday that his administration will file emergency rules this week so people who are out of work because of COVID-19 can request unemployment insurance benefits from the Illinois Department of Employment Security.
The governor is also asking Congress to waive interest on any federal loans that Illinois might take out because of the virus. He also wants the Trump administration to activate “able and available to work” waivers so people can collect federal unemployment.
“This needs to be declared as a national disaster around coronavirus so that we can have the release of the ability to provide unemployment benefits, because many of the people who won’t be able to work or are asked to stay home for 14 days are living paycheck to paycheck,” Pritzker said Wednesday morning.
On Capitol Hill
In Washington on Wednesday, an Illinois congressman pressed the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on what he criticized as an unaggressive response to COVID-19 in the U.S.
“One month after the first coronavirus case was detected, we had still not shipped test kits to public labs,” said U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, an Illinois Democrat from Schaumburg, during a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.
Following Pritzker’s frustration with the lack of tests provided by the federal government, Krishnamoorthi grilled CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield.
The CDC started developing a test after the first U.S. COVID-19 case was announced on Jan. 21. The Food and Drug Administration authorized distribution to states on Feb. 4, but flaws in test kits and contamination at the CDC’s facility in Atlanta delayed testing.
“Recovering from that misstep cost us precious weeks and now months,” Krishnamoorthi said. “Meanwhile the virus spread and people died.”
Countries like South Korea and Italy, which opted to use an earlier-developed test from the World Health Organization, have tested hundreds of thousands of people. In the U.S., the CDC says slightly more than 11,000 people had been tested as of Tuesday. Redfield said that’s because the agency wanted a test specific to America’s public health system.
“We did not develop this test for all of clinical medicine,” he said. “Tests for clinical medicine, we count on the private sector to work together with the FDA to bring those tests to bear.”
COVID-19 cases in the U.S. topped 1,000 on Wednesday with more than 30 deaths as the World Health Organization declared the disease the first global pandemic since the 2009 H1N1 swine flu. Worldwide, more than 122,000 people have gotten sick and more than 4,500 have died.
CDC guidelines suggest covering coughs and sneezes, washing hands for 20 seconds with soap and water, avoiding touching your face, staying home when you are sick, and cleaning frequently-touched surfaces.
Illinoisans who think they might have the virus may call the state’s COVID-19 hotline (1-800-889-3931) or email email@example.com. IDPH also has a webpage of frequently asked questions: http://www.dph.illinois.gov/topics-services/diseases-and-conditions/diseases-a-z-list/coronavirus.