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Opinion | News-Gazette: Virus numbers tell a grim story
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Opinion | News-Gazette: Virus numbers tell a grim story

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This editorial appeared in the July 19, 2020, edition of The (Champaign) News-Gazette:

Continuing his battle to limit the spread of the coronavirus, Gov. J.B. Pritzker last week announced a more targeted geographic approach to the problem.

In doing so, Pritzker repealed his earlier decision to set up rules applying to four regions of our large, industrial state. Now, he’s created 11 zones that will allow health officials to take a much more narrow approach in identifying and dealing with any outbreaks.

Pritzker also raised the possibility of re-imposing restrictions on businesses and individuals in zones where coronavirus statistics reveal a growing problem.

Pritzker’s more precise approach — moving to 11 zones from four — is a tacit admission that critics were correct when they argued that his initial approach was far too broad to apply to the state’s 102 counties. Without saying that specifically, that’s what he said.

“We’re continually evaluating what works and what doesn’t work,” he said.

That’s a common-sense approach on public-policy questions, particularly this one.

As has been said before, if anything is clear about the coronavirus pandemic, it’s that far more is not known about what works than is known.

Few governors have been more aggressive than Pritzker in taking steps to limit the virus’s spread. He shut down the state’s economy in March to restrict spread of the virus and has been reluctant to ease up on restrictions, even though the public has grown restive.

Obviously, Pritzker thought he was doing the right thing for the right reasons. Even now, he brags about the success of his policies, characterizing Illinois’ “infection rate” as several times lower than surrounding states.

The coronavirus has produced an avalanche of statistics. So it’s unclear to what Pritzker is referring.

The Statista website indicated that, as of July 15, Illinois had an infection rate of 1,236 per 100,000 people, the 12th highest in the nation. The hardest-hit states, in order, are New York (2,072 per 100,000), New Jersey (1,981 per 100,000) and Louisiana (1,765 per 100,000).

Statista shows all of Illinois’ neighboring states with lower rates — Iowa, 1,137 per 100,000; Indiana, 783; Michigan, 780; Wisconsin, 651; Missouri, 476; and Kentucky, 453.

NPR’s coronavirus statistics website reports that as of Thursday, Illinois has had 157,825 cases and 7,427 deaths. It puts Illinois’ total deaths at No. 4 nationwide, trailing New York (32,427 deaths), New Jersey (15,634) and Massachusetts (8,368).

Michigan has had 6,330 deaths, even though its number of cases (78,913) is slightly more than half of Illinois’.

Of Illinois’ five other neighboring states, total deaths range from 645 (Kentucky) to 2,785 (Indiana), and cases range from 20,677 (Kentucky) to 53,370 (Indiana).

All kinds of factors contribute to those statistics. Urban areas, like Chicago, where people are piled on top of each other, are a coronavirus problem. So, too, are large populations of groups of those who are especially vulnerable to the virus — minorities, the elderly and those with co-morbidities.

Whatever the reasons for Illinois’ circumstances, the numbers show the state is not necessarily doing well in its efforts to limit the spread of the virus.

In that context, Pritzker’s more precise approach is welcome.

The coronavirus represents a double whammy to the state — both a public-health and economic disaster whose consequences are ongoing and far-reaching.

That’s why people need to exercise their best judgment when it comes to taking safety measures while maintaining a sense of both humility and skepticism about what works and doesn’t.

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