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Latest coronavirus news for April 21, 2020

Here’s the latest news on how COVID-19 impacted Chicago and Illinois today.

Illinoisans might not be going back to work in offices or eating out at restaurants any time soon. Both Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot said they expect the stay-at-home order to be extended into May — maybe even into June.

Here’s what went down today as the state continued to grapple with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

News

8:54 p.m. Wall Street ratings firm: COVID-19 could mean ‘long-term damage’ to already woeful Illinois finances

Gov. J.B. Pritzker gives his daily update on the coronavirus situation on April 13, 2020.
Governor J.B. Pritzker, along health officials give their daily update on the coronavirus situation in Illinois, Monday, April 13, 2020.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

The coronavirus pandemic will “exacerbate the already substantial financial challenges” facing Illinois and “could inflict some long-term damage” to the state by the time it’s contained.

That’s according to a report released Tuesday by the credit ratings agency Moody’s, which earlier this month already affirmed the cash-strapped state’s rating at a notch above junk status and revised its outlook for Illinois from “stable” to “negative.”

“The negative outlook aligns with our view of the probable effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which will reduce tax collections and likely cause current-year pension investment losses, both of which would weigh more heavily on Illinois, given its existing weaknesses relative to other states,” Moody’s report states.

“Federal government support will mitigate some of the direct budgetary burden, but the state will face liquidity pressure that may lead it to near-term actions such as adding to its balance of unpaid bills. The state is also increasingly likely to take actions that worsen its long-term liabilities, in view of revenue shortfalls and growing health and social burdens.”

One potential action is an extension of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order that has ground the state economy nearly to a halt. Pritzker is expected to extend that order later this week, keeping thousands of businesses closed — though it’s not clear for how long.

Read the full story by Mitchell Armentrout.

8:09 p.m. Would you volunteer to be infected with COVID-19 to help develop a vaccine?

If you are young and healthy, would you volunteer to be infected with COVID-19 to help quickly develop a vaccine? With the pandemic sweeping the globe, it’s a reasonable question to be asking.

A group of 35 lawmakers, led by Reps. Bill Foster, D-Ill., and Donna Shalala, D-Fla., are urging the Food and Drug Administration to take more risks — including infecting humans — to shrink the time it takes to develop and approve a vaccine.

“We are trying to give the FDA political cover to be somewhat more aggressive on the rapid rollout of vaccines than they would under normal circumstances,” Foster told the Chicago Sun-Times on Tuesday.

The “typical” approval time for vaccines of normal diseases is 18 months to several years. Foster told me testing a COVID-19 vaccine using infected humans could cut that time to two or three months.

Foster, a physicist, and Shalala, who served as Health and Human Services Secretary under former President Bill Clinton, laid out the case for rethinking the risk/benefit ratio involved in COVID-19 human drug testing in a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar and FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn.

Reporter Lynn Sweet has the full story.

7:00 p.m. Senate approves $483B coronavirus aid bill

A $483 billion coronavirus aid package flew through the Senate on Tuesday after Congress and the White House reached a deal to replenish a small-business payroll fund and provided new money for hospitals and testing.

Passage was swift and unanimous, despite opposition from conservative Republicans. President Donald Trump tweeted his support, pledging to sign it into law. It now goes to the House, with votes set for Thursday.

“I urge the House to pass the bill,” Trump said at the White House.

After nearly two weeks of negotiations and deadlock, Congress and the White House reached agreement Tuesday on the nearly $500 billion package — the fourth as Washington strains to respond to the health and economic crisis.

Read the full report here.

5:52 p.m. Homeless urge CHA to open vacant public housing units during coronavirus crisis

Housing advocates urged the Chicago Housing Authority on Tuesday to open up its 2,000 vacant units to people experiencing homelessness during the coronavirus pandemic.

Their demands come as homeless shelters across the city fear becoming overwhelmed in the coming days as between 30% and 45% of people tested positive for the virus at some locations.

“The CHA is doing a grave injustice for the homeless, and in our darkest hour they’re still dragging their feet,” said Kevin Reynolds, a grassroots organizer with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

“I’ve been on the CHA waitlist for over three years. ... So when I found out that CHA has over 1,800 available units that they’re just sitting on, it was like a slap in the face,” Reynolds said during a news conference Tuesday.

“Do they plan on ever filling these apartments? I understand there’s a vetting process, but in a time of crisis like this, placing the homeless in these units should be the top priority.”

The Chicago Housing Authority said Tuesday filling up the 2,042 vacant units across its portfolio isn’t easy. Around 900 of those units are scheduled for redevelopment and are not habitable, the agency said, while other vacant units are in the process of being rented out.

Read the full story by Carlos Ballesteros.

4:50 p.m. Lightfoot seeks expanded emergency spending and procurement powers during pandemic

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has already used an executive order to grant herself extraordinary spending and contracting powers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Now she’s asking the City Council’s Budget Committee to give her even more authority — even though aldermen have adopted rules allowing them to hold virtual Council meetings to conduct substantive city business.

The mayor’s ordinance will be introduced directly to the Budget Committee in preparation for a vote on Tuesday and final sign-off Wednesday by the full Council.

It would give Budget Director Susie Park carte blanche to “appropriate emergency-related funds from federal, state and other sources, establish new funding lines, consolidate funding lines and transfer or otherwise reallocate currently appropriated funds, including transfers between city departments ... to maximize effectiveness of the city response” to the pandemic.

Chief Procurement Officer Shannon Andrews would be empowered to “enter any contract or amendment to a contract as she deems necessary” without requiring economic disclosure statements.

Read the full story by Fran Spielman.

4:02 p.m. Fourth of July fireworks may be the next victim of coronavirus

Booms accompanied by ooohs and ahhhs.

They are Fourth of July fireworks traditions that might be considerably muted this year as coronavirus concerns have led several suburbs to cancel patriotic pyrotechnic displays in what could prove to be a growing trend in the coming days and weeks.

“It’s not something we wanted to do,” Beecher President Greg Szymanski told the Chicago Sun-Times on Tuesday. “We were holding out, hoping and praying we could still pull it off, but I think the writing was just on the wall.”

Public safety was the chief concern, but it was also not the right time to ask local businesses for money to pay for the event, which is entirely funded through sponsorships, Szymanski said. The cancellation was announced Monday.

Read the full story by Mitch Dudek.

3:39 p.m. Pritzker: Trump’s rhetoric will lead to violence and death, ‘and he should stop it’

Gov. J.B Pritzker on Tuesday said President Donald Trump is “fomenting some violence” and stirring up protests that will lead to more COVID-19 deaths by urging states to “liberate” themselves from stay-at-home orders meant to stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

Pritzker accused the president of resorting to a “political maneuver in the middle of a national emergency.”

“And he should stop it,” Pritzker said.

A day after Trump said he’d issue guidance to the nation’s governors, the president on Friday tweeted “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” Similar tweets about Michigan and Virginia followed. Protests to lift states’ stay-at-home orders have drawn large crowds in a number of states, including Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan and California.

Pritzker on Tuesday joined a chorus of Democratic and Republican governors in criticizing Trump’s message on a Washington Post Live event with national political reporter Robert Costa.

Read the full story by Tina Sfondeles.

2:40 p.m. 119 more die from COVID-19 in Illinois as death toll nears 1.5K

Officials on Tuesday said another 119 people have died from COVID-19 in Illinois as the state anticipates an extension of a stay-at-home order.

In total, 1,468 people have died from the outbreak. There were also 1,551 new cases reported, bringing the state’s total of patients testing positive to 33,059.

The virus was also confirmed in an additional county, with 96 of 102 counties now reporting cases. There were 6,639 coronavirus tests conducted on Monday.

Hospitalizations, however, have remained relatively level, according to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office. On Monday, there were 757 COVID-19 patients on ventilators and in intensive care units. On Sunday, there were 781 patients using ventilators. Pritzker’s office said there were 13 fewer ICU beds occupied by coronavirus patients from Sunday to Monday.

Read the full story by Tina Sfondeles.

2:25 p.m. Lightfoot says stay-at-home order could last well into June

As the April 30 endpoint of the Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s extended stay-at-home order nears, and some city and state governments are in talks to lift similar shelter-in-place guidelines and reopen non-essential businesses, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said on a call with reporters Tuesday that she expects Chicago and Illinois to extend its quarantine procedures potentially into June.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker said at his daily coronavirus briefing Monday that Illinois’ containment efforts have shown promise, but he asserted the state hasn’t “quite hit the peak yet.”

“And you won’t really know if you’ve hit the peak until you start to go down,” the governor said.

The governor said some of the federal guidelines for re-opening the country “are worth looking at,” including the notion that getting past the peak equates to 14 days of numbers going down.

Lightfoot said Tuesday that she would be “guided by the science” and the advice of experts at the city’s Department of Public Health to tell her when there “we have a comfort level” coming out of this period.

“The cases not only have to slow, as they have. They have to decrease dramatically. We haven’t seen that yet and we’re not near there. We have to see a substantial drop in the number of overall ICU cases, particularly the percentage of ICU beds occupied by COVID positive” or suspected COVID cases.

Lightfoot also demanded “much more widespread testing than what’s available right now,” adding,’ “We need to build an infrastructure so that we can do extensive contract tracing.”

“Those are the bare minimums. And we’re not there on any of those metrics,” she said

“I’ve made no secret of the fact that April 30 is, I think, no longer a viable date,” the mayor said Tuesday, according to Block Club Chicago. “I would expect an extension of the stay at home order and the other orders that were put in place … to go through sometime in May. It certainly could go into June, but June 30 is just kinda an outside marker.”

— Fran Spielman

12:41 p.m. FDA approves first at-home COVID-19 test

U.S. health regulators on Tuesday OK’d the first coronavirus test that allows people to collect their own sample at home, a new approach that could help expand testing options in most states.

The test from LabCorp will initially only be available to health care workers and first responders under a doctor’s orders. The sample will still have to be shipped for processing back to LabCorp, which operates diagnostic labs throughout the U.S.

Allowing people to self-swab at home would help reduce infection risks for front-line health care workers and help conserve protective gear.

For the home test, people are initially screened with an online questionnaire. If authorized by a physician, LabCorp will ship a testing kit to their home. The kit includes cotton swabs, a collection tube, an insulated pouch and box to ship the specimen back to LabCorp. To take a sample, a cotton swab is swirled in each nostril. The test results are posted online to a secure company website.

The $119 test includes a kit with all necessary testing materials, two-way overnight shipping via FedEx, physician services from PWNHealth, and the testing of your sample LabCorp’s labs.

Watch LabCorp’s instructional video on how to self-swab at home:

Read the full report about the new test here.

12:28 p.m. Doctors ask death penalty states to share execution drugs for use in COVID-19 treatment

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. But for some, it can cause severe illness, requiring them to be placed to ventilators to help them breathe.

Many medications used to sedate and immobilize people put on ventilators and to treat their pain are the same drugs that states use to put inmates to death.

Drugs being requested include the sedative midazolam, the paralytic vecuronium bromide and the opioid fentanyl. They’re needed because putting a patient on a ventilator “with no drugs ... would be torture,” said Zivot, an associate professor of anesthesiology and surgery at Emory University in Atlanta who has studied medicine’s role in capital punishment.

States may be hesitant to turn over their drugs because they have had problems securing them as many pharmaceutical companies oppose their use in executions, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

Read the full report here.

10:40 a.m. Pritzker joins panel Tuesday on leadership during coronavirus, at odds with Trump

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who has been publicly sparring with President Donald Trump since he began mobilizing Illinois’ response to the coronavirus pandemic, will join Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for a conversation moderated by the Washington Post Tuesday at 11:35 CST.

They are leaders in America’s heartland, battling the global pandemic. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer is facing massive demonstrations against her stay-at-home executive order. Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker is at odds with the federal government, saying he has given up on help from the Trump administration.

Click here to watch the live discussion, hosted by Washington Post political reporter Robert Costa.

9:46 a.m. City of Chicago cancels early summer music festivals, parades

After weeks of speculation over the fate of some of Chicago’s biggest summer festivals, the official word arrived Tuesday morning.

Out of an abundance of caution and adhering to state-mandated stay-at-home guidelines and social distancing guidelines from the CDC, the following events have been canceled according to the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE):

  • 4th annual Chicago House Music Conference & Festival, May 21–24, various venues
  • Chicago’s Memorial Day Parade and Wreath Laying Ceremony, May 23
  • 35th Chicago Gospel Music Festival, May 27–30 in Millennium Park and the Chicago Cultural Center
  • 37th annual Chicago Blues Festival, June 5-7 in Millennium Park

Also canceled is the new 18-day “Chicago In Tune” citywide celebration (May 21–June 7), which was billed as “the signature program” for the Year of Chicago Music.

Click here for more on summer festival cancellations.

8:48 a.m. National Spelling Bee canceled for first time since 1945

This year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee has been canceled after organizers concluded there is “no clear path to safely set a new date in 2020” because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The decision, announced by Scripps on Tuesday morning, means kids who are in eighth grade this year will miss their final opportunity to compete in the national finals. Scripps will not change eligibility requirements for next year’s bee, which is scheduled for June 1-3, 2021, at its longtime venue, a convention center outside Washington. The bee has always been open to kids through the eighth grade.

Read the full report here.

7:50 a.m. Mental health therapists seek help from Blue Cross

Mental health therapists who contract with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois are pressuring the insurer to cover their telehealth services beyond April 30, the current end of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order.

In an email to Blue Cross executives, they said extending the coverage deadline would reduce stress for their small businesses needing cash flow and for clients concerned about payment. They said the pandemic and its required isolation are exacerbating mental health issues.

“We are seeing many more cases of depression because social support is such a huge part of dealing with it,” said Colleen Cira, executive director of the Cira Center for Behavioral Health in Chicago. She said therapists are getting more cases involving suicidal thoughts, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, especially among health-care and other essential workers.

Cira said the email went to about 20 Blue Cross executives. It was from her and 35 other leaders of mental health practices in the Chicago area that together employ more than 250 therapists. A copy was provided to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Read more from reporter David Roeder.

6:54 a.m. Some states begin loosening restrictions, reopening hair salons, bowling alleys, tattoo shops

Boeing and at least one other U.S. heavy-equipment manufacturer resumed production and some states rolled out aggressive reopening plans Monday, despite nationwide concerns there is not enough testing yet to keep the coronavirus from rebounding.

Some states — mostly Republican-led ones — have relaxed restrictions, and on Monday announced that they would take further steps to reopen their economies.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced that gyms, hair salons, bowling alleys and tattoo parlors were among businesses that could reopen Friday, as long as owners followed strict social distancing and hygiene requirements.

But governors from many other states said they lacked the testing supplies they need and warned they could get hit by a second wave of infections, given how people with no symptoms can still spread the disease.

“Who in this great state actually believes that they care more about jet skiing than saving the lives of the elderly or the vulnerable?” Democratic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer remarked, referring to restrictions in place in her state. “This action isn’t about our individual right to gather. It’s about our parents’ right to live.”

Read the full report here.

6:26 a.m. Efforts outlined to bridge Chicago’s racial divide in coronavirus-related deaths

Two weeks after declaring a “public health red alarm,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Monday outlined the immediate steps she has taken to prevent the coronavirus from continuing to kill African Americans at a rate four times higher than whites.

The mayor’s “hyper-local, data-informed” strategy will be focused, at least initially, on three hard-hit neighborhoods: Austin, Auburn-Gresham and South Shore.

The unprecedented outreach by Lightfoot’s so-called “racial equity rapid response teams” includes expanded testing and free distribution of 60,000 masks, 80,000 door hangers and 150,000 postcards.

The goal is to “pro-actively reach” African Americans at greatest risk of contracting the coronavirus because of their age, their underlying health conditions or the fact that they are “essential” employees who cannot afford to stay safe at home.

To spread the message, the city is holding three, 90-minute telephone town hall meetings, one in each of the targeted neighborhoods. South Shore is first — on Thursday from 4:30 to 6 p.m. — followed by Auburn Gresham from 10:30 a.m. to noon on Saturday and Austin from 12:30 to 2 p.m.

Read the full report from Fran Spielman here.


New Cases


Analysis & Commentary

7:31 p.m. Would you volunteer to be infected with COVID-19 to help develop a vaccine?

If you are young and healthy, would you volunteer to be infected with COVID-19 to help quickly develop a vaccine? With the pandemic sweeping the globe, it’s a reasonable question to be asking.

A group of 35 lawmakers, led by Reps. Bill Foster, D-Ill., and Donna Shalala, D-Fla., are urging the Food and Drug Administration to take more risks — including infecting humans — to shrink the time it takes to develop and approve a vaccine.

“We are trying to give the FDA political cover to be somewhat more aggressive on the rapid rollout of vaccines than they would under normal circumstances,” Foster told the Chicago Sun-Times on Tuesday.

The “typical” approval time for vaccines of normal diseases is 18 months to several years. Foster told me testing a COVID-19 vaccine using infected humans could cut that time to two or three months.

Read Lynn Sweet’s column in its entirety here.

6:26 p.m. Trump’s feeble plan to beat COVID-19? Scapegoat immigrants

President Donald Trump’s announced plan to suspend immigration is anything but an honest response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is political opportunism at its worst. It is Trump 101 — “the wall” — all over again. It is ugly xenophobia.

We doubt it will work. Only the hopelessly gullible will be taken in.

The coronavirus continues to spread across the country because of person-to-person contact among Americans, not because of an influx of diseased immigrants. Travel in and out of our country has largely dried up anyway, as a result of earlier restrictions imposed by the United States and many other countries.

But Trump has always wanted to shut down immigration, making exceptions for those who are wealthy, non-Muslim, highly skilled or his wife. He and his thuggish adviser on immigration, Stephen Miller, see the pandemic as their chance. It thrills his political base.

Given all that Trump and his administration have failed to do in the fight against the coronavirus, this latest foolishness is unconscionable, if entirely predictable.

Read the editorial by the Chicago-Sun-Times editorial board.

12:58 p.m. Muslims prepare for a Ramadan like no other

The holiest month of the Islamic calendar begins with the sighting of the new moon — probably this Friday. And just as earlier this month, when Jews faced the challenge of the Zoom Seder and Christians coped with Easter Mass celebrated in empty cathedrals, now Muslims prepare to enter a new world of social-distance Ramadan.

“It’s going to be very interesting,” said Nabeela Rasheed, a lawyer.

“Muslims around the world are bracing for a Ramadan of the likes they’ve never seen or imagined before,” said Salman Azam, a board member at the Downtown Islamic Center. “We watched our interfaith partners having Seders and Easter dinners virtually and it helped us get ideas for the breaking of the fast.”

The Ramadan dawn-to-darkness fast from eating and drinking is one of the five essential “pillars of Islam,” along with prayer, charity, pilgrimage, and declaration of faith. The fast is usually broken with a nighttime meal, called an “iftar,” a much-anticipated home-cooked feast eaten with friends and relations.

“Ramadan is a time when communities and families gather in large numbers,” said Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “That obviously is not going to happen this Ramadan.”

Read more from columnist Neil Steinberg.

12:01 p.m. If we can beat a virus, we can beat climate change

During this pandemic, we have seen reports of clearer skies, cleaner air and even fresher water due to less burning of fossil fuels. Our planet seems to be demonstrating an ability to repair the damage we have caused, and faster than we might have expected.

Once the virus is under control, must we rush to reverse this progress, returning to an orgy of fossil-fuel consumption and the desecration of the oceans and land? Please, no! Let’s do whatever it takes to maintain and build on this progress toward reversing climate change.

Read this and more letters from readers here.

6:08 a.m. Coronavirus has made incarceration a potential death sentence

This week, the New York Times featured the story of how the coronavirus savaged the Federal Correctional Complex in Oakdale, Louisiana. On March 28, Patrick Jones, 49, serving a 27-year sentence for possession of crack cocaine with the intent to distribute, became the first federal inmate to die of the virus.

Barely three weeks later, seven inmates had died, at least 100 inmates and staff members had been infected, with more than 20 hospitalized — and an entire community terrorized. The prisoners died, unreported, unknown, their bodies essentially owned by the federal government that imprisoned them.

According to corrections officers there, the warden was slow to act, saying that “we live in the South and it’s warm here. We won’t have any problems,” a haunting illustration of the dangers of loose rhetoric and tall tales from the president, amplified on social media.

The horrors of the Andover, New Jersey nursing home — with at least 70 residents dead and dozens more testing positive — has dramatized the vulnerability of the elderly in nursing homes, where over 7,000 have died. Our grossly overpopulated prisons and jails are quickly becoming the next centers to be ravaged by the disease.

Cook County Jail, the largest in the country, is already one of the nation’s largest sources of infections, with more confirmed cases than the USS Theodore Roosevelt or the New Rochelle, New York cluster. Four inmates are dead and 215 have tested positive, as have 191 correctional officers and 34 other sheriff’s office employees. One employee just died.

Read Rev. Jesse Jackson’s full column here.