Pritzker rolls out mental health hotline as Illinois coronavirus case tally tops 19,000

The virus has now been reported in 86 of the state’s 102 counties. Nearly 93,000 people have been tested.

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at a March 12 news conference.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at a March 12 news conference.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Illinois health officials announced 81 more deaths and 1,293 new cases of the coronavirus on Saturday, raising the statewide death toll to 677 and the case tally to 19,180.

The wave of deaths marked the second highest surge since the pandemic began. Officials announced 82 deaths Wednesday.

The virus has now been reported in 86 of the state’s 102 counties. Nearly 93,000 people have been tested for COVID-19 in Illinois, but Gov. J.B. Pritzker has said “we are not where we need to be” yet in terms of testing availability.

He has, however, expressed cautious optimism that the state could be approaching the peak of the pandemic and “bending the curve” to keep the state’s 211 hospitals within their patient capacity.

“What that means is a lower rise in hospitalizations than we originally anticipated, and that’s a really good sign,” Pritzker said. “But by no means do we think that is determinative of what tomorrow or the next week will bring.”

Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike urged people to continue following social distancing guidelines — and she called on those who celebrate Easter to do so from home Sunday.

“Easter 2020 will go down in history as a completely different type of Easter, and is not one where we’ll be able to commune together,” Ezike said.

Pritzker also announced a menu of new statewide tele-health programs, including a mental health support hotline, to offer additional assistance throughout the pandemic.

The state’s new Remote Patient Monitoring Program will digitally connect pandemic health workers with people experiencing COVID-19 symptoms who need to stay home or quarantine, Pritzker said.

Patients in the program will receive daily virtual check-ins, as well as wellness kits stocked with the tools needed to monitor their health like thermometers, pulse oximeters, blood pressure cuffs and alcohol wipes, according to the governor.

People are eligible for the program — which is a partnership with OSF HealthCare and Southern Illinois University School of Medicine — if they show COVID-19 symptoms or are at high risk for contracting the virus, but don’t require emergency or inpatient care.

The state’s Healthcare and Family Services Department has formalized contracts for the program in central and southern Illinois, and is finalizing a partnership to roll it out in the northern region this coming week.

The state also launched Call4Calm, a free-of-charge, emotional support text line for residents struggling with mental health issues during the pandemic.

Anyone who needs to speak with a mental health professional can anonymously text “TALK” or “HABLAR” to 552020 and a local community health center counselor will get back to them with support within 24 hours, Pritzker said.

People can also text the keywords “unemployment,” “food” or “shelter” to receive information on other supports and services throughout the pandemic, he added.

“Although there are reasons to see hope and a lot of examples of people helping one another, there are also circumstances that may cause you to feel despair,” Pritzker said. “We are living in a deeply unprecedented moment, and holding the emotional ramifications of that inside will only be harder on you. It’s ok to feel, and you don’t have to feel it all alone.”

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