Thirty-three more people have died of the coronavirus in Illinois, health officials announced Saturday, raising the statewide death toll from the virus to 243.
The 33 deaths and 1,453 new cases of COVID-19 were reported by Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike during their their Saturday coronavirus update.
Since the pandemic first hit Illinois in late January, 10,357 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed throughout the state.
“The number is sobering and reminds us it’s critical we all do our part,” Ezike said. “The more cases means the more hospitalizations, which means more deaths, so every gesture that we forgo can help decrease our deaths.”
Cook County accounted for 23 of the latest deaths, which included a man in his 20s, although older people tend to experience more severe cases of the coronavirus.
The virus has now spread across Illinois, with cases confirmed in 68 of the state’s 102 counties, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
The latest numbers came as Pritzker announced the steps officials are taking to protect state agency workers, who offer essential services needed to continue running the state during the pandemic.
“Along with my administration’s commitment to maintaining critical services our residents need during this crisis, we’re also responsible for protecting the health and safety of the state employees who deliver those services,” Pritzker said.
He introduced leaders from the state’s Human Services, Veterans Affairs and Children and Family Services departments, who shared what steps are being taken to protect employees whose work requires face-to-face interaction.
Linda Chapa LaVia, director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, said an employee at the Prince Home for Homeless Veterans in Manteno has fallen ill with the coronavirus, but there are still no known cases at any of the department’s long-term care facilities.
“The employee is home recovering, and our prayers are with them and their family,” Chapa LaVia said.
She said the Department of Veterans Affairs has restricted visitation for all non-essential personnel, encouraged residents to stay in their units, staggered mealtimes and begun pre-shift employee health screenings to protect facilities from the virus’ spread.
Mark Smith, director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, said 88% of its workforce no longer reports to an office so they can practice social distancing. That includes the entire call floor workforce on the DCFS neglect and abuse hotline.
The department also issued new guidelines for case workers, residential monitors and birth parents that allows them to use phone and video to replace in-person contacts with their children. But some of the department’s work still requires in-person contact, Smith said.
For that, DCFS has distributed more than 400,000 protective gloves, 15,000 respiratory masks and disinfectant supplies across the state, Smith said. A team of people is looking to secure more protective equipment, including enough to address a shortage of child-size masks.
Grace Ho, secretary of the Illinois Department of Human Services, said her department’s case volume has “skyrocketed” more than 170% in the last week as the coronavirus outbreak spread dramatically in Illinois, closing businesses and shutting down everyday life.
“We have a delicate balance and have to think strategically while taking precautions as our work requires human connection,” she said.
Concerns about the safety of “essential employees” — those whose work must continue working during Pritzker’s statewide stay-at-home order — have continued to rise as more coronavirus cases have been confirmed in workplaces across the state.
A Walmart store in south suburban Evergreen Park announced on Saturday that two of its employees who were sick with COVID-19 had died.
“We are heartbroken to learn of the passing of two associates at our Evergreen Park store, and we are mourning along with their families,” a Walmart spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
Earlier Saturday, a few dozen employees at Amazon’s Little Village distribution center went on strike outside the DCH1 delivery station, 2801 S. Western, to protest what they said are unsafe and exploitative working conditions.
They participated in the action after allegedly learning that one of their coworkers tested positive for COVID-19 over a week before they were told. A second employee has since tested positive for the virus, said Christian Zamarron, a 30-year-old Pilsen man who’s worked at the facility for almost three years.
“This is a part-time facility, so they don’t even offer health insurance,” Zamarron said Saturday. “We feel that if Amazon is not going to do anything to protect us and our lives, we have to do something ourselves.”
On Friday, Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot unveiled the first phase of a massive field hospital being set up at McCormick Place East with the Army Corps of Engineers.
They’re converting three of the convention center’s exhibition halls into medical wings. The first wing had 500 beds ready to use by Friday, officials said.
Another 2,500 beds will be installed in stages to meet what officials say could be a peak in coronavirus diagnoses in Chicago around mid-April.
Hall B, normally home to the Chicago Auto Show, will be set up with 750 beds for the more moderately sick patients, officials said. It’s projected to be done by April 24, while Hall A is expected to have 1,750 beds ready by the end of April.
Contributing: Tina Sfondeles