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Pritzker bolsters testing rules for nursing homes, issues Phase 3 ‘guidance’ for churches

Each long-term care facility will be required to report to public health officials the number of residents and staff tested, and the number of positive and negative test results. The facilities must also make sure a copy of infection control policies and procedures is provided to residents and to the families of residents.

A coronavirus test is administered in May in the parking lot of St. Rosalie Catholic Parish in Harwood Heights.
A coronavirus test is administered earlier this month in the parking lot of St. Rosalie Catholic Parish in Harwood Heights.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

State health officials on Thursday announced 104 more deaths attributed to the coronavirus, raising Illinois’ pandemic toll to 5,186.

The Illinois Department of Public Health also reported 1,527 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19. A total of 115,833 people have tested positive statewide.

Nearly 44% of those cases have occurred in long-term care facilities like nursing homes, state Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said.

“We are ensuring that swift action is being taken and we know that facilities must immediately notify state health officials of any cases of COVID-19,” Ezike said.

That includes a new emergency rule Pritzker plans to enact that will require each nursing home to develop its own individualized testing and plan and document an established relationship with a testing lab.

“This new rule will require nursing homes to conduct testing, when experiencing an outbreak, when an outbreak is suspected, testing even when there is no sign of an outbreak, in line with new federal guidance issued this week, or when directed by IDPH or their local health department to do testing,” Pritzker said.

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Each long-term care facility will be required to report to public health officials the number of residents and staff tested, and the number of positive and negative test results. The facilities must also make sure a copy of infection control policies and procedures is provided to residents and to the families of residents, along with IDPH or local health departments, upon request, the governor’s office said.

The governor said the rule doesn’t deviate from what the state is already doing, but it gives the Illinois Dept. of Public Health “additional teeth in securing buy-in from these private entities.

“Administrators who decline to provide a testing plan will be found in violation of the rule,” Pritzker said. That includes being issued a violation or a fine.

Pritzker said personal protective equipment has been delivered to every nursing home in the state and “over 900” have been connected with directly and in-person by the Illinois Dept. of Public Health.

The governor said about 45,000 testing kits, in 200 shipments, have been sent to 170 nursing homes. But the governor said some nursing homes, which are mainly privately owned, have declined free visits from the public health staff or free testing. And the public health department has an agreement with Quest Laboratories, which has so far provided 8,500 testing kits to 33 long-term care facilities.

The Health Care Council of Illinois said it “emphatically” agreed with Pritzker’s assessment that COVID-19 has been “unrelenting” on nursing home residents.

“All nursing homes — those with confirmed cases and those who have been spared the wrath of this disease — know testing at many stages is vital to fighting the coronavirus. We encouraged facility-wide testing since the beginning, and many facilities have proactively contracted with laboratories or partnered with hospitals to test residents and staff,” council executive director Pat Comstock said in a statement. “In accordance with this new regulation, nursing homes will submit testing plans to the state and welcome feedback from epidemiologists and other public health experts.”

As of midnight Wednesday, 3,649 people were hospitalized with the virus across the state. Just over a thousand were in intensive care units, with 576 on ventilators.

The latest numbers came a day before Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s executive stay-at-home order lifts, allowing all four regions of the state to enter Phase 3 of his reopening plan. That’s delayed for Chicago, though, which Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Friday will advance to Phase 3 on June 3.

The governor said the soonest the four regions can move to Phase 4 is June 26. Phase 4 would allow for schools to reopen, as well as bars and restaurants. The governor has said he wants bars and restaurants to be able to open in Phase 3, but only outside and only a limited capacity and with safety guidance.

Ezike urged Illinoisans to remain vigilant even as most businesses are poised to resume limited operations, by wearing face coverings, regularly washing hands and maintaining 6 feet of social distance.

“We are definitely headed in the right direction… but we must still proceed with caution. The risk of contracting the virus remains,” Ezike said.

Guidance for faith leaders

Pritzker’s office also released recommendations for churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship entering Phase 3 — which he stressed were a “guidance, not mandatory restrictions, for all faith leaders to use to ensure the health and safety of their congregants.

“This includes suggestions on capacity limits, new cleaning protocols, indoor gatherings of 10 persons or less, a reduction of activities like sharing food, and the safe conduct of outdoor congregating,” Pritzker said. “The safest options remain remote and driving services, but for those that want to conduct in-person activities, [the state health department] is offering best practices.”

According to the state safety guidelines, the state recommends “where weather and facilities permit, it is much safer for worship and other activity to occur outdoors rather than indoors.” Face coverings are also recommended.

Other guidelines include the strong consideration of “discontinuing singing, group recitation, and other practices and performances where there is increased likelihood for transmission from contaminated exhaled droplets.” It also includes not serving food or beverages, such as at a potluck.

“Discourage staff, congregants, and visitors from engaging in handshakes, hugs, and similar greetings that break physical distance,” the guidelines suggest. “Take measures to remind people to wave or use other greetings.”

A conservative religious non-profit group, the Thomas More Society, called Pritzker’s distinction of the guidelines as recommendations instead of requirements “a total and complete victory for people of faith.”

The group is part of a legal effort that had called on the U.S. Supreme Court to block state health guidelines limiting religious gatherings to 10 people.

“Illinois’ governor and his administration abused the COVID-19 pandemic to stomp on the religious liberty of the people of Illinois,” Thomas More Society Vice President Peter Breen said in a statement. “Today, people of faith across Illinois should breathe a little freer, as their government has finally recognized their fundamental freedom of religion.”

Read all the state health recommendations for houses of worship: