CAPITOL RECAP: COVID surge stresses hospitals, keeps lawmakers from Capitol
A continuing sharp spike in COVID-19 cases being driven by the omicron variant has pushed the state’s hospital capacity to its limits and is prompting the state to bring in additional health care workers from other states and countries.
Gov. JB Pritzker said Wednesday, Jan. 12, that more than 2,000 additional health care workers have been deployed throughout the state, including 919 in hospitals hit hard by the surge, with another 552 scheduled to arrive within the next several days.
“This current wave of COVID is causing more people to get sick than ever before in the pandemic,” Pritzker said. “And the vast majority of the serious illnesses and deaths are among the unvaccinated.”
As of Wednesday, the Illinois Department of Public Health was reporting 7,219 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state, down slightly from the record 7,353 who were hospitalized on Tuesday. Another 271 people in the state had died of the disease just since Monday.
“We have never had this many COVID patients in the hospital at any point in the pandemic. Not in spring of 2020; not in the winter of 2020,” IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said, noting that the previous pandemic record was 6,175, set in November 2020.
Over the past seven days, more than 227,000 new cases have been confirmed in Illinois out of 1.9 million tests performed, for a seven-day case positivity rate of 12 percent.
“But as difficult as this moment is, there will be an end to it,” Pritzker said. “We have all the necessary tools for prevention, and we are nearer than ever to having everything we need to detect and treat the disease to keep even the most vulnerable people alive. I can't say enough about how extraordinary our hospitals and our health care heroes have been throughout this pandemic.”
Pritzker said the state was taking several actions to bolster its health care workforce, such as allowing out-of-state health care providers to continue practicing in Illinois with expanded permissions to care for all patients, not just COVID-19 patients.
In addition, doctors trained in other countries have been given permission to provide assistance to licensed physicians in Illinois. And out-of-state providers, including physicians, nurses and mental health providers, are being allowed to provide telehealth services to patients in Illinois if they have a pre-existing provider-patient relationship.
* * *
COVID PROTOCOLS IN SCHOOLS: Gov. JB Pritzker issued an executive order late Tuesday, Jan. 11, spelling out protocols that schools now need to follow whenever a student or school employee tests positive for COVID-19.
Consistent with the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the order requires infected individuals, regardless of their vaccination status, to be excluded from school premises for a minimum of five days and a maximum of 10 days following the onset of symptoms or the date of their test.
Schools also must exclude students or employees who come in close contact with an infected person for a minimum of five days after their exposure, and those individuals must continue to wear a mask at all times around others, including when outdoors, for an additional five days after they return to school.
* * *
MORE SESSION DAYS CANCELED: Illinois House and Senate leaders in the General Assembly announced Wednesday, Jan. 12, that they were canceling in-person session days next week, although committees will continue to meet remotely.
“Given the recent COVID-19 numbers, this is not the time to bring hundreds of people together inside the Capitol,” Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, said in a statement. “Through our remote committee process we have proven that we can get work done, protect people’s health and at the same time expand the legislative process to people who might want to testify but wouldn’t have the time or resources to come to Springfield.”
* * *
REPUBLICANS CALL FOR DCFS HEARINGS: Three Republican state House members called for hearings into the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services on Thursday, Jan. 13, out of concerns for workers’ safety, improper placements of state wards and the recent death of North Chicago boy.
Reps. Steven Reick, R-Woodstock, Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, and Tom Weber, R-Lake Villa, held a news conference Thursday to demand that DCFS Director Marc D. Smith appear and answer questions. They called on their Democratic colleagues and Gov. JB Pritzker to join their calls for hearings.
“For the past three years, members of the House and Senate of both parties have tried to peel the onion that is DCFS to find the root causes of their failures,” Reick said. “And the only conclusion that we could draw is that the agency is irretrievably broken and that no amount of money will solve its systematic failures.”
DCFS has come under fire in recent weeks for three incidents: the death of a caseworker, the death of a child in a family where abuse allegations were reported, and a contempt citation issued against Director Smith for failing to move children to appropriate placements.
Child protection investigator Deidre Silas worked for the department for six months when she was sent alone to a house in Thayer on Jan. 4 to check on the welfare of six children. Silas was found dead by Sangamon County Sheriff’s deputies. She had been bludgeoned and stabbed. Benjamin Reed, 32, who lived at the home, was later charged with Silas’ murder. She was the mother of two children.
In a separate incident, 6-year-old Damari Perry was found dead in an abandoned building in Gary, Indiana. Damari was taken into the state’s care in 2015, but was returned to his mother’s care, along with his siblings, two years later. Two subsequent abuse allegations were received by DCFS, including an allegation that the mother wrote a note threatening harm to Damari. On Dec. 29, prosecutors said Damari was punished with a shower in cold water. He vomited, went unresponsive and later died. Jannie Perry, the boy’s mother, and two siblings face charges in connection with his death.
“It should come as no surprise that members of the GOP are once again using our state’s most vulnerable as pawns in their political games,” Pritzker spokesperson Jordan Abudayyeh said. “This is the same party that stood behind (former Gov.) Bruce Rauner as he decimated social services and recklessly cut 500 beds for youth in care without creating alternative placements. They repeatedly voted against increased funding for DCFS, resulting in dangerously low staffing levels. As the administration has repeatedly made clear, these reckless decisions destroyed lives quickly, but it will take years to undo that damage.”
DCFS has a $1 billion budget, but money to hire more caseworkers isn’t the solution, Weber said.
“Failed leadership cannot be fixed by more money or more employees. When you see a pattern of children being taken away from then returned to their mother and years later that child is murdered, these are patterns that aren’t going to be fixed by more money. This is something that can only be address by an investigation of the failed policies of DCFS and its leadership,” the state representative said.
* * *
CONTEMPT CHARGES AGAINST DCFS DIRECTOR: Illinois Department of Children and Family Services Director Marc D. Smith faced a contempt citation in two Cook County juvenile cases with a $1,000-a-day fine for as long as he leaves the children in their current placements. Those cases were dismissed Thursday, Jan. 13.
A 9-year-old girl, known as A.M. in court records, was placed in a locked psychiatric facility. The girl suffered horrific sexual and physical abuse at the hands of a parent, including being forced to have sex with adults. Despite court orders to place the girl in a therapeutic foster care setting, the 9-year-old currently was held in a locked psychiatric unit for more than 223 days.
The other case involved a child known as C.R.M. who was also ordered on Nov. 14 to be taken out of temporary shelter where he was confined since Aug. 14 when he was placed in a temporary shelter in Mount Vernon – 279 miles from Chicago where his mother lives. Before that, C.R.M., who has severe mental health issues, was at another temporary shelter in Chicago where he slept in a utility room. At that time, DCFS told the court that the child needed a therapeutic foster home placement. The Mount Vernon shelter is a temporary placement for children for less than 30 days. C.R.M. had been at the shelter more than 150 days.
The contempt citation was issued after numerous violations of court orders to remove the children and put them in appropriate placements.
“The Department of Children and Family Services is dedicated to keeping children safe and strengthening families. We are working aggressively addressing the decades-long challenge of a lack of community resources and facilities for children with complex behavioral health needs, which has been exacerbated by an increased demand in social services in recent years,” DCFS spokesman Bill McCaffery said. “Every single day, DCFS works with its network of providers and foster parents in an ongoing effort to place these children in settings that can provide the appropriate level of care and in which the children can grow and flourish.”
Both of the contempt citations were purged and the fines vacated at a Cook County hearing on Thursday, Jan. 13. Smith was found in contempt in the case of a 17-year-old boy who has been in a locked psychiatric hospital since September. The court ordered sanctions of $1,000 per day until DCFS appropriately places the child, to start on Jan. 18. At the DCFS director’s request, the court stayed the order until Jan. 20 for DCFS to seek appellate review.
* * *
PRISON INTAKES: The Illinois Department of Corrections announced Tuesday, Jan. 11, that it would pause intake of inmates from county jails amid the COVID-19 surge.
As of Friday, IDOC reported 1,042 staff members and 1,684 inmates were positive for COVID-19.
Sheriffs who are charged with operating county jails around the state say IDOC’s decision puts more stain on county resources and personnel.
“Unfortunately, IDOC did not provide any communication or collaboration with the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association or any Sheriff regarding this suspension of intake although we have repeatedly offered a willingness to discuss issues with the Department,” Jim Kaitschuk, executive director of the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association, said in a written statement. “As people are aware, crime is continuing to occur and arrests continue to be made by law enforcement as we work to combat crime in our communities.”
Madison County Chief Deputy Jeff Connor said he met with all the police chiefs in the county and apprised them of the situation. The Madison County Jail currently houses 290 inmates. The jail’s capacity is 306. The jail is currently holding 28 people who were scheduled to be transferred to DOC.
“This really puts us behind the eight ball. It puts a strain on our staff and local police departments,” Connor said.
Until they are transferred to DOC, counties will have to pick up the tab for food, utilities and medical costs.
* * *
ELECTRIC VEHICLES CHARGING ACT: A measure before the General Assembly would require new and renovated residential or commercial buildings to set aside parking spaces that could easily be converted into electric vehicle charging stations.
Rep. Robyn Gabel, D-Evanston, advanced House Bill 3125 through the House Energy and Environment Committee on Tuesday, Jan. 11, noting she would work on an amendment to remove extra language that does not pertain to the parking provision.
Under the bill, newly built or extensively renovated residential buildings would have to make all spaces “electric vehicle capable,” meaning they meet certain wiring requirements. Depending on the size of the parking lot, a certain number of spaces would have to be “electric vehicle ready,” meaning they contain receptacles with the necessary voltage to install an EV charging station.
Residential buildings would be required to have at least six parking spaces ready for installation of charging stations. If there are one to six parking spaces, all spaces would be required to be EV ready.
Buildings with 24 parking spaces or more would have to have at least one fully equipped charging station.
Commercial buildings would need to set aside 20 percent of parking for EV ready spaces.
Neda Deylami, an EV advocate for the Sierra Club, said the passage of the bill is “more urgent” than ever to fight climate change and make personal transportation more affordable and convenient.
* * *
DEMMER MAKING RUN FOR TREASURER: State Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, announced he will run for state treasurer on Tuesday, Jan. 11. If he wins the Republican Party nomination, he likely would face two-term incumbent Mike Frerichs, who is seeking reelection.
In Tuesday’s announcement, Demmer pledged to oppose tax increases and bring greater transparency to state spending. “Unfortunately, in Springfield right now, the politicians’ answer to every problem is higher taxes and more spending,” Demmer said in a statement. “We know Springfield politicians won’t change overnight, but we can take an important first step by electing a proven fiscal watchdog as state treasurer. As treasurer, I’ll be on the side of Illinois families working to protect their hard-earned dollars and shining a light on how our tax dollars are spent.” Demmer, 35, has served as state representative since 2013, serving a district comprised of portions of DeKalb, LaSalle, Lee and Ogle counties in northern Illinois. Demmer serves as deputy minority leader and has been the Republicans’ point person on state fiscal issues.
Frerichs countered with a statement welcoming Demmer to the race and warning voters that Demmer would undo years of progress and represent big-business interests.
Demmer attacked Frerichs for supporting income tax hikes, including a proposed tax on retirement income. Frerichs pointed to success in creating college saving plans, a retirement plan that travels with workers, and returning more than $1 billion in unclaimed property.
“Tom Demmer opposed every reform I have championed as treasurer, even when other Republicans were on our side,” said Frerichs, who has held the office since 2015. “He does not have the conviction to fight for Illinois families, and he does not have the backbone to stand up to special interests.”
Demmer will be on the Republican Party ballot in the June 28 primary election. Thursday is the first day to circulate petitions for the primary, and candidates must file between March 7 and March 14.
* * *
COVID-19 UPDATE: The Illinois Department of Public Health said Friday, Jan. 7, that the state had recorded 201,428 new cases of COVID-19 over the previous week, a 57 percent increase over the previous week, while the weekly number of deaths rose 15 percent, to 444 as the omicron variant of the virus continues to spread.
Those cases were confirmed out of more than 1.3 million laboratory tests performed over the previous week, which brought the preliminary statewide case positivity rate to 15.2 percent
Those case counts are the highest of any since the pandemic began, according to IDPH data, although the death rate is well below the pandemic peak of a year ago. On Thursday, Jan. 6, alone, the state recorded more than 44,000 new cases, the highest single-day case count since the pandemic began.
That brings the total number of cases since the pandemic began to just under 2.4 million, including 28,361 deaths.
As of Thursday night, IDPH reported 7,096 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized, including 1,123 patients in intensive care units and 639 on ventilators. Those cases account for 38 percent of all staffed ICU beds available and 11.5 percent of all staffed ventilators.
IDPH continues to advise people that vaccines are the strongest defense against the virus. As of Thursday night, more than 19.5 million vaccinations had been administered. Over the past week, 294,687 doses were administered, for an average of 42,098 per day.
Currently, 73 percent of the state’s total population has received at least one dose of vaccine, while 64 percent are fully vaccinated and 40 percent have received a booster shot.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.