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State seeking 12,000 body bags as critical weeks near in COVID-19 fight: ‘We’re preparing in all ways’

The 12,000 figure would far exceed most death projections for Illinois from COVID-19. The latest model from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projects 3,629 people will die in Illinois from the disease by Aug. 4.

A man has Daley Plaza to himself as he walks through the Loop last week.
Amid fears of the coronavirus pandemic and a stay-at-home order from Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a man has Daley Plaza to himself as he walks through the Loop last week.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Even as Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration is scrambling to find enough medical supplies to save lives during the coronavirus pandemic, it also is stockpiling body bags in preparation for a worst-case scenario.

In the past week, the state’s procurement team has issued three different solicitations to potential vendors to purchase body bags, also known as cadaver bags — seeking more than 12,000 in total.

That figure would far exceed most death projections for Illinois from COVID-19.

The latest model from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projects 3,629 people will die in Illinois from the disease by Aug. 4. The state’s death toll stood at 380 on Tuesday with the addition of 73 more lost lives, the worst single day of the crisis.

The institute, a global health research center, is projecting the range of deaths in Illinois could fall anywhere between 2,335 and 6,267. The researchers are projecting Illinois will experience a peak of 202 daily deaths on April 12.

So far, Pritzker has not shared the data the state is using to make its own projections for possible fatalities from the deadly virus.

Few cars could be seen traveling inbound on the Eisenhower Expressway shortly before 2 p.m. Monday afternoon.
Few cars could be seen traveling inbound on the Eisenhower Expressway, I-290, from the overpass at South Leavitt Street, shortly before 2 p.m. Monday afternoon.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

On April 1, the Illinois Emergency Management Agency asked for bids on an initial purchase of 6,025 body bags, then followed up Sunday by asking for 5,000 additional bags. The following day, it increased that total by another 1,060.

So far, the state has completed an order for just 6,300 of the 12,085 body bags, according to the governor’s office.

The governor was reluctant to discuss the matter Tuesday at his daily briefing.

“I don’t really want to comment on it,” he said. “We’re preparing in all ways. We don’t really know what the numbers will be in the end, and it’s hard to point at something that will tell you exactly what those numbers would be. Obviously, there are models out there, but a lot of them. We want to make sure we’re prepared. If we end up being over prepared in that way, I would be glad that we were.”

Earlier, the governor’s COVID-19 media team issued a written statement to the Sun-Times:

“As we would in any large scale emergency/disaster, the State evaluates any needs (personnel, equipment, supplies) that local jurisdictions may have to execute their response.

“All disasters start and end locally. If a local jurisdiction has extended its capability to respond to a disaster, the state’s role is to supply resources and/or assets to meet the needs of their communities.

“Unfortunately, responding to fatalities is one of the many critical functions that the State is working collaboratively with local jurisdictions to ensure all parties in the State of Illinois are poised to respond quickly as the pandemic continues.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker listens to a question during a news conference in Chicago last month.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker listens to a question during a news conference in Chicago last month.
Charles Rex Arbogast/AP file

A spokesperson for the governor said the body bags will be distributed as requested by local municipalities, public health officials and hospitals.

The governor’s office said the supply is intended to cover the entire state and to be available for people who may die from causes unrelated to the coronavirus.

Previously, Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, Cook County’s chief medical examiner, explained her office would be placing each corpse with suspected COVID-19 involvement in two body bags as an extra precaution against the spread of the virus. That could partially account for the high number of body bags sought by the state.

This is another example of states being on their own to locate needed supplies during the coronavirus emergency, often placing them in competition with each other and bidding up the prices.

Most of that effort has been directed at obtaining all-important personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves, gowns and face shields for medical personnel and other first responders.

But it also has included locating refrigerated trucks to help hospitals and funeral homes store bodies until the crisis has eased.