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Coronavirus live blog, Jan. 19, 2021: COVID-19 vaccination for most Chicago adults could begin by May 31

Here’s Tuesday’s news on how COVID-19 is impacting Chicago and Illinois.

The United States hit yet another grim milestone Tuesday: 400,000 deaths from COVID-19 nationwide. In response, Chicagoans joined President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in a silent, 10-minute tribute to honor the people lost to the disease.

Here’s a look at what else happened in Chicago and around Illinois as the pandemic persisted.


News

8:56 p.m. Tables waiting? Indoor dining for Chicago could be just days away — vaccination could begin for most residents by May 31

A information sign indicates that a COVID-19 vaccine is not yet available at Walgreens in Glenview, Ill., Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021.
Nam Y. Huh/AP Photo

Illinois’ coronavirus infection numbers took another step in the right direction Tuesday, including in Chicago, where Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s health team could clear the table for bars and restaurants to resume limited indoor service within a few days.

City health officials also suggested the bulk of residents could start getting COVID-19 vaccinations by the end of May.

The Illinois Department of Public Health announced 4,318 new infections were detected among the latest batch of 71,533 tests. That puts the seven-day average statewide positivity rate at 5.7%, its lowest point in nearly three months.

Hospital numbers are back down to October levels, too, with 3,335 COVID-19 patients hospitalized statewide as of Monday night.

Chicago’s regional positivity rate is down to 8% and has been falling steadily since Jan. 8. After three consecutive days below 8% positivity, the city will move down from Tier 2 to Tier 1 of the governor’s viral mitigation measures.

Pritzker tweaked his plan last week to allow for bars and restaurants to resume indoor service at 25% capacity in Tier 1. The Democratic governor also quietly eased the state’s required hospital metrics over the weekend — citing a launch of state-contracted hospital surge staffing — which has sped up some regions’ progression through the complicated web of mitigation tiers and reopening phases.

Read Mitchell Armentrout’s full story here.


7:17 p.m. IHSA will allow unlimited contact days, says a new schedule will be revealed Jan. 27

The Illinois High School Association met with athletic directors via Zoom on Tuesday to provide an update in reaction to the Illinois Department of Public Health moving most of the state’s regions to different COVID-10 tiers the last few days.

The only major change is that fall, spring and summer sports will be allowed unlimited contact days starting on Jan. 25. That means coaches will be able to meet with their players and hold practices. Some sports will be allowed to hold full practices and others just non-contact conditioning sessions. The type of practice depends on the sport’s level of risk and what COVID-19 tier the region is in.

Chicago and most suburbs were moved into Tier 2 by the IDPH on Monday. Some regions of the state are in Tier 1, which allows several high school sports to play actual games. Everything remains on pause in Will and Kankakee counties, which are still in Tier 3.

Lower-risk sports teams will be allowed to play games within their conference and region. Those sports include boys and girls bowling, cheerleading, dance, girls gymnastics and boys swimming and diving and badminton.

The IHSA conducted seasons in golf, girls tennis, cross country, and girls swimming and diving through sectional competition this fall, but all IHSA sports have been paused since November 20.

Reporter Michael O’Brien has the full story.

3:40 p.m. Shedd Aquarium to reopen next week

The wait is over for Chicagoans who have missed visiting their favorite underwater creatures at the Shedd Aquarium since the coronavirus pandemic forced its closure: The Shedd will be reopening to the public next week, it announced Tuesday.

Members will be the first allowed in, with access to the aquarium from Jan. 27 to Jan. 29. General admission will begin on Jan. 30. Tickets for members will go live at noon on Thursday, and regular tickets will be available starting at noon on Saturday.

Shedd staff plan to employ strict health and safety measures, including limiting the amount of guests allowed inside at a time, mask requirements, hand sanitizer stations and one-directional pathways so visitors can safely social-distance.

Read Grace Asiegbu’s full story here.

3:15 p.m. ‘Shameful’: US virus deaths top 400K as Trump leaves office

As President Donald Trump entered the final year of his term last January, the U.S. recorded its first confirmed case of COVID-19. Not to worry, Trump insisted, his administration had the virus “totally under control.”

Now, in his final hours in office, after a year of presidential denials of reality and responsibility, the pandemic’s U.S. death toll has eclipsed 400,000. And the loss of lives is accelerating.

“This is just one step on an ominous path of fatalities,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University and one of many public health experts who contend the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis led to thousands of avoidable deaths.

“Everything about how it’s been managed has been infused with incompetence and dishonesty, and we’re paying a heavy price,” he said.

Read the full story here.

3 p.m. Chicago Teachers Union might take strike vote this week, sources say

The Chicago Teachers Union could vote as early as this week whether to go on its second strike in as many school years as thousands of teachers and staff continue to protest orders to return to schools they don’t believe are safe in a pandemic, sources told the Chicago Sun-Times.

The union is expected to convene its 700-member House of Delegates on Wednesday to discuss whether to propose a work stoppage or other collective job action to the 25,000 rank-and-file members of the CTU, who could begin voting as soon as the next day, according to sources who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak about the union’s plans.

If three-quarters of CTU members vote in favor of the proposed measure — as required by state law for a strike authorization — teachers would likely take the collective action next Monday, sources said, when Chicago Public Schools officials are expecting thousands of kindergarten through eighth grade teachers and staff to report to work ahead of a Feb. 1 reopening for elementary and middle schools.

Read Nader Issa’s full story here.

12:12 p.m. Oxygen-starved city in Brazil’s Amazon starts immunization

RIO DE JANEIRO — The Amazonian city of Manaus in Brazil began administering vaccines against the coronavirus, providing a ray of hope for the rainforest’s biggest city whose health system is collapsing amid an increase in infections and dwindling oxygen supplies.

Amazonas state Gov. Wilson Lima led a ceremony that kicked off the vaccination campaign Monday night in Manaus, an isolated riverside city of 2.2 million people.

Vanda Ortega, 33, a member of the Witoto ethnicity and a nurse technician, received the first dose of CoronaVac, a vaccine developed by Beijing-based biopharmaceutical company Sinovac.

“I want to thank God and our ancestors,” said Ortega, who is also a volunteer nurse in her Indigenous community.

Brazil on Monday began rolling out its national immunization program with 6 million doses of CoronaVac in almost a dozen states, and hopes to receive 46 million doses up to April to distribute among states. Amazonas received 256,000 doses.

The state government on Tuesday started distributing the doses to municipalities. The priority in the first vaccination phase will be health workers, elderly people above 80 years old, and Indigenous people in about 265 villages.

Read the full story here.

11:45 a.m. COVID-19 mutations make need to get people vaccinated more urgent

The race against COVID-19 has taken a new turn. Mutations are rapidly popping up, and the longer it takes to vaccinate people, the more likely it is that a variant that can elude current tests, treatments and vaccines could emerge.

The coronavirus is becoming more genetically diverse, and health officials say the high rate of new cases is the main reason. Each new infection gives the virus a chance to mutate as it makes copies of itself. And that threatens to undo the progress made to control the pandemic.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says a new version first identified in the United Kingdom could become dominant in the United States by March. It doesn’t cause more severe illness. But it will lead to more hospitalizations and deaths because it spreads so much more easily, according to the CDC.

“We need to do everything we can now … to get transmission as low as we possibly can,” said Harvard University’s Dr. Michael Mina. “The best way to prevent mutant strains from emerging is to slow transmission.”

Read the full story here.

8:44 a.m. California man allegedly hid 3 months at O’Hare because of coronavirus

A California man who told police that the coronavirus pandemic left him afraid to fly has been arrested on charges that he hid in a secured area at O’Hare Airport for three months.

Aditya Singh, 36, is charged with felony criminal trespass to a restricted area of an airport and misdemeanor theft after he was arrested Saturday. At a court hearing on Sunday, a judge ruled that the Orange, California, man could be released if he paid $1,000, but said that Singh was prohibited from setting foot in the airport.

As of Monday morning, Singh remained in the Cook County Jail.

The Chicago Department of Aviation said Singh did not pose a security risk to the airport or the public.

“CDA has no higher priority than the safety and security of our airports, which is maintained by a coordinated and multilayered law enforcement network,” the department said in a statement. “We will continue to work with our law enforcement partners on a thorough investigation of this matter.”

Assistant Public Defender Courtney Smallwood said Singh does not have a criminal record. She also said it was unclear why Singh, who is unemployed, came to Chicago or if he has ties to the area.

Read David Struett’s full story here.

7 a.m. Some COVID restrictions lifted after Illinois records smallest daily caseload in more than 3 weeks

Chicago and most of its surrounding suburbs were given the green light on Monday to increase capacity at casinos, museums and big-box retailers and bring back indoor fitness classes and recreation programs as the regions were bumped to Tier 2 mitigations.

Indoor dining, however, remains prohibited in the Chicago area.

The loosened business restrictions announced Monday by the Illinois Department of Public Health are due to a change in staffing contracts that increased hospital staffing statewide.

Under the new mitigation metrics, Regions 8, 9, 10 and 11 — which cover the Chicago area including north and west suburban Cook County — were moved from the most restrictive Tier 3 to Tier 2. Meanwhile, Regions 1, 2 and 6 — or north, north-central and east-central Illinois — were bumped to Tier 1, allowing for bars and restaurants to open indoor service at limited capacity. Regions 3 and 5 — or west-central and the southern part of the state — are returning to Phase 4 of the Restore Illinois Plan, while Regions 4 and 7 — which cover south suburban Cook County and southwest Illinois — remain in Tier 3.

“Hospital leaders have made clear the importance of staffing in their continued response to this pandemic and conveyed that staffing contracts will be extraordinarily valuable in their ability to meet the needs of their communities,” IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said in a statement. “It is critical that we maintain this progress. With new variants of COVID-19 spreading, it is more important than ever to follow the public health guidance that keeps people safe — wear your mask and watch your distance.”

Read Madeline Kenney’s full story here.


New cases

  • Health officials on Monday reported 3,385 new and probable COVID-19 cases — its smallest daily caseload in over three weeks — as Illinois’ seven-day positivity rate continued to fall.
  • Health officials also announced an additional 50 coronavirus-related deaths, raising the statewide death toll to 18,258. More than half of Monday’s fatalities were reported in the Chicago area, including a Cook County man in his 30s.
  • Statewide, COVID-19 hospitalizations have also been on a gradual decline. As of Sunday night, 3,345 beds were occupied statewide by coronavirus patients, with 705 of those patients in intensive care units and 392 on ventilators, officials said. That’s the lowest hospital admission due to COVID-19 since early November.

Analysis & commentary

5:20 p.m. Giving inmates vaccines ahead citizens in Groups 1c and Group 2 is disgraceful

The following Letter to the Editor was submitted by Daniel Locallo, a retired Cook County Circuit Court judge:

The Center for Disease Control Guidelines created categories of population groups to prioritize which citizens would receive COVID-19 vaccinations. Under the guidelines, Group 1a consisted of front-line health care personnel and residents of long term-care facilities. Group 1b consisted of essential front-line workers, including first responders.

The Center for Disease Control and its Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices defined “essential front-line workers” in phrase 1b as those who had “close interaction with the public.” Group 1c consisted of individuals with significant co-morbid conditions and all older adults. Group 2 consisted of individuals with moderate co-morbid conditions or people in homeless shelters.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has deviated from the guidelines and has determined prisoners belong in Group 1b. Prisoners are not essential front-line workers and they do not have close interaction with the public. They have committed crimes that merited their incarceration. Allowing inmates to receive COVID-19 vaccines ahead of law-abiding citizens in Groups 1c and Group 2 is unwarranted and disgraceful. According to statistics from the Illinois Department of Public Health, of all the patients testing positive for the virus, 1.7% of them died. Of all the infected inmates in Illinois, 0.75% died.

The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on our fellow citizens and the amount of available vaccines are small. The governor has asked law-abiding citizens to exercise patience. Law-abiding citizens deserve better. Adults with high-risk medical conditions should not have to wait in line behind criminals to receive their vaccines.

Read more Letters to the Editor from our readers here.

7:33 a.m. Nobody should sit in jail because they are poor. Can we agree on that?

When the University of Illinois announced last summer that it would reopen its Urbana-Champaign campus this fall despite the threat of COVID-19, skeptics called it a foolish risk.

But, as Clare Proctor reported for the Sun-Times on Monday, the university has achieved phenomenal success in containing the virus — no hospitalizations and no deaths — by rigorously enforcing a scientifically sound testing protocol.

Too often, the public debate about major policy decisions runs toward opposite corners — good idea, bad idea — when, as the University of Illinois has shown, the debate should be less about whether to do something than about how to do it right.

Certainly, that has been the case when it comes to the intersection of education and COVID-19, which is why we have argued for the reopening of elementary schools, high schools and universities during the pandemic, as long as proven safety measures are in place. Remote learning is a miserable substitute for in-person learning.

But the same evidence-based approach should be taken, though so often it is not, when governments address all sorts of big issues, from health care to immigration, in which the goals of reforms are noble and right but the risks are real and significant.

Start from a place of trying to make it work.

We are thinking specifically today of the state Legislature’s decision last week to do away with cash bail in Illinois. The intent of the reform is undoubtedly noble — to end a system of bail that punishes people for being poor. But critics are calling on Gov. J. B. Pritzker to veto the bill, saying it would lead to dangerous people walking free from jail.

Read the full editorial here.