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Illinois to greatly expand testing for coronavirus even though risk remains low, officials say

Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot insisted Chicago and Illinois are prepared to handle an outbreak and said there is no cause for alarm.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot discuss coronavirus preparedness at a Chicago press conference on Friday.
Tina Sfondeles/Chicago Sun-Times

Even as the state announced plans to expand testing for the coronavirus to help diagnose the virus more quickly, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot insisted on Friday that Chicago and Illinois are prepared for any outbreak.

So far, Illinois has had just two confirmed cases, and both people have recovered.

But on the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state plans to partner with hospital emergency departments in every region to do voluntary testing of patients with influenza-like symptoms. Those tests would then be sent to labs in Chicago, Carbondale or Springfield.

“While the risk to the general public remains low, we want you to know that our state and local agencies and officials are using every tool at our disposal to ensure the public’s health and safety are well-guarded,” Pritzker said at a Chicago press conference. “I want to be clear, the best thing the general public can do at this time is to continue with the same precautions that you take during flu season with renewed vigilance.”

That includes washing your hands, staying home when sick and covering your mouth and nose while coughing or sneezing.

Both Lightfoot and Pritzker stressed that the risk of contracting the virus in Illinois is low — despite the World Health Organization on Friday saying the risk of the disease spreading is very high at a global level.

“There really is no cause for alarm,” Lightfoot said.

“We believe, based upon the diligence of the medical professionals that you heard directly from that the risk remains low,” Lightfoot said. “But we’ve got to be diligent. We didn’t say no risk, but the risk is low.”

Lightfoot also said despite the virus’ origin in China, there’s no reason to avoid Chinatown in Chicago. Several small businesses have said they’ve struggled in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

“Our residents should continue to enjoy the city and neighborhoods, particularly Chinatown, and its amenities as they normally do,” she said.

Lightfoot urged that “fear cannot guide us in this moment.”

Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said the state will communicate “quickly and transparently” if the risk level grows in the state.

“Our knowledge of coronavirus increases every single day,” Ezike said. “We understand that the virus is primarily spread through person-to-person transmission. Again, it causes mild illness in otherwise healthy people but potentially serious illness in the elderly and immunocompromised persons.”

The state’s chief epidemiologist, Dr. Jennifer Layden, announced her resignation this week to take a position with the city’s Department of Health. Ezike said the state currently has an acting state epidemiologist, Dr. Craig Conover, who is a CDC-trained specialist and has worked for the department since 2002. Ezike said he worked closely with the state on the H1N1, SARS and Ebola virus. The state plans to fill the vacancy quickly, she said.

President Donald Trump announced that Vice President Mike Pence is now leading the federal government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. Does Pritzker, a frequent critic of Trump, have confidence in that response?

“All I’m saying is we’re not relying upon the White House. We, in fact, have one of the best public health systems in the country,” said Pritzker. “And so we’ve got experts here ... who are highly capable of managing the COVID-19 [coronavirus], that’s come upon us.”

Earlier this month, Illinois became the first state able to test for the new coronavirus without having to send samples to the CDC. That means test results should typically be available in about 24 hours, officials said.

The state has a hotline where questions about coronavirus can be directed at 1-800-889-3931.