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Coronavirus live blog, Jan. 4, 2021: Illinois’ 7-day COVID-19 positivity rate rises again to 8.6%

Here’s Monday’s news on how COVID-19 is impacting Chicago and Illinois. Follow here for live updates.

Illinois’ seven-day positivity rate is by nearly two percentage points compared to eight days ago, reminding residents that the pandemic is far from over.

Here’s what else happened Monday in coronavirus-related news.


News

8:55 p.m. 79 more deaths, 5,059 more cases as Illinois COVID-19 positivity rate ticks up

A phlebotomist draws blood for a COVID-19 antibody test at a mobile test site in Chicago, Illinois
Scott Olson/Getty Images

State health officials on Monday announced another 79 Illinois residents have died of the coronavirus in the last day and 5,059 new positive cases recorded.

Forty-one of those 79 deaths were in Cook County, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. Though a teen was among the fatalities, the majority of deaths — in both the county and state — involved people at least 60 years old.

The state reported 81 deaths and 4,469 positive cases on Sunday.

As of Monday, Illinois had recorded 16,834 deaths due to COVID-19, with more than 984,000 positive tests across the state since the pandemic’s outbreak last year, according to IDPH.

The state’s seven-day positivity rate — the metric used to gauge the speed at which the virus is spreading — ticked up from 8.3% on Sunday to 8.6% on Monday, state health officials said. Eight days ago, the positivity rate was 6.8%.

Coronavirus-related hospitalizations are on the rise, as well. As of Sunday night, 3,948 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 — 131 more people than the day before. Of those patients, 816 were in intensive care units and 471 were on ventilators, according to IDPH.

Read the full story from Sam Charles here.

6:09 p.m. Most workers at state’s veterans’ homes in no hurry to get coronavirus vaccine

Though COVID-19 vaccines have been made available to all employees at Illinois veterans’ homes, only 40% of staff members have so far opted to receive their first dose of the inoculation against the deadly virus.

The Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs announced last Thursday that vaccines have been made available to all residents and employees at the department’s facilities.

So far, 74% of residents, and 40% of staff, have received the vaccine, but a further breakdown of those numbers show that staff at the locations have largely opted out of receiving the first dosage of the COVID-19 vaccine.

At the Manteno home, only 18% of staff have been vaccinated — the lowest percentage of the state’s four homes.

Reporter Rachel Hinton has the full story.

3:25 p.m. UK prime minister orders new virus lockdown for England

LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Monday a new national lockdown for England until at least mid-February to combat a fast-spreading new variant of the coronavirus, even as Britain ramped up its vaccination program by becoming the first nation to start using the shot developed by Oxford University and drugmaker AstraZeneca.

Johnson said people must stay at home again, as they were ordered to do so in the first wave of the pandemic in March, this time because the new virus variant was spreading in a “frustrating and alarming” way.

“As I speak to you tonight, our hospitals are under more pressure from COVID than at any time since the start of the pandemic,” he said.

Under the new rules, which are set to come into effect as soon as possible, primary and secondary schools and colleges will be closed for face to face learning except for the children of key workers. University students will not be returning until at least mid-February.

All nonessential shops and personal care services like hairdressers will be closed, and restaurants can only operate takeout services.

Read the full story here.

2:30 p.m. Prosecutor: Wisconsin pharmacist thought vaccine was unsafe

PORT WASHINGTON, Wis. — A Wisconsin pharmacist told police he tried to ruin hundreds of doses of coronavirus vaccine because he felt the shots weren’t safe, a prosecutor said Monday.

Police in Grafton, about 20 miles north of Milwaukee, arrested Advocate Aurora Health pharmacist Steven Brandenburg last week following an investigation into the 57 spoiled vials of the Moderna vaccine, which officials say contained enough doses to inoculate more than 500 people.

“He’d formed this belief they were unsafe,” Ozaukee County District Attorney Adam Gerol said during a virtual hearing. He added that Brandenburg was upset because he was in the midst of divorcing his wife, and an Aurora employee said Brandenburg had taken a gun to work twice.

Gerol didn’t explain why Brandenburg thought the vaccine wasn’t safe. Federal regulators authorized the Moderna vaccine for emergency use on Dec. 18. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the vaccine’s side effects are mostly mild, ranging from soreness at the injection site to nausea and fever.

Read the full story here.

2:10 p.m. Chicago teachers refuse to return to school amid safety concerns

Some Chicago Public Schools teachers chose to stay home and continue teaching remotely despite being expected to return to school Monday.

The decision came after several months of campaigning by the Chicago Teachers Union to put CPS’ reopening plan on hold.

Preschool and special education cluster teachers and staff were to return to the classroom Monday and begin in-person teaching Jan. 11.

Linda Perales, a kindergarten to second grade cluster teacher at Corkery Elementary School, said she decided to continue teaching remotely because CPS’ reopening plan guidelines won’t allow her students to be taught properly.

“We know that K-2 cluster students can’t wear a face mask all day, they cannot social distance and that increases the transmission of COVID-19,” Perales said in a news conference Monday. “They will have to wear a face mask all day. Teachers will have to wear a face mask all day, and that is so important to note because it’s going to make it impossible to teach letter sounds and other things like that.”

Perales and other teachers said they are concerned that returning to in-person learning will affect low-income students by increasing the risk of transmission and bringing the coronavirus back to their communities, which have already been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

Read Cindy Hernandez and Nader Issa’s full story here.

1:25 p.m. Hospital chaplains: How do you touch suffering families when COVID-19 denies proximity?

When spiraling COVID-19 caseloads created lockdowns at hospitals nationwide, loved ones weren’t the only ones prevented from visiting patients in crisis. COVID also changed the way hospital chaplains bring comfort and consolation to patients, their families and hospital staff in need.

“With the CDC saying there was indication people could spread this disease much more virulently, we knew right at the very beginning of the shutdown that we didn’t want to have people going from one place to another throughout the hospital,” said Dennis Ryan, vice president of external affairs for Sinai Health System, who oversees all pastoral care.

Sinai includes four hospitals, 17 community clinics, a community institute and a nationally recognized research institute on Chicago’s West and Southwest sides. The hospitals, Mount Sinai, Sinai Children’s, Holy Cross and Schwab Rehabilitation hospitals, are all covered by chaplains within the health system’s pastoral care department.

“It was also very, very clear to me that over half of our chaplains had age and preexisting conditions making them susceptible to the virus as they visited various units all over the hospital, from E.R. to the mother-baby unit, code blues and patients in between,” Ryan said.

So Sinai Health System did something once unimaginable: took pastoral care virtual.

Joining the trend in nearly every sector of pandemic life, hospital chaplains now bring commiseration to patients, families and staff via phone or Zoom, not just at Sinai, but across the country.

“I made a decision that everybody would do phone calls only, and as a result, we could be available 24-7 for all our hospitals, so that whenever patients, a family or caregiver or doctor or nurse wanted to talk to someone, they could pick up the phone at any time,” Ryan said.

“It’s less personal, but it has meant there’s always someone available, even if it’s 3 o’clock in the morning. A lot of hospitals ended up doing the exact same thing.”

Keep reading Maudlyne Ihejirika’s column, “The Chicago Chronicles,” here.

12:53 p.m. With a hitch or two, Cook County clerk presides over first-of-the-year online wedding

Ashley Graff had some pre-wedding jitters Monday, but they had nothing to do with finally tying the knot after an 11-year engagement.

Her concern was about the wedding guests — most of whom she’d probably never met.

“Well, I didn’t expect to win, I guess,” said Graff, 36. “I didn’t know it was going to be broadcast when I signed up.”

Graff and her fiance, Undra Baldwin, 37, who live in Elgin, entered Cook County Clerk Karen A. Yarbrough’s lottery to win the first marriage license of 2021 and a live wedding via Zoom that included free flowers, as well as virtual dance and cooking lessons.

Graff and Baldwin were runners-up. The first couple picked chose to make different arrangements for their wedding.

Yarbrough typically conducts the first-of-the-year wedding in person, but the coronavirus threw a wrench into those plans.

So Yarbrough conducted the wedding remotely. Graff, an administrative assistant, and Baldwin, a machine operator, were dressed for the occasion. They held hands in a hotel room in Schaumburg, where they celebrated Graff’s birthday Sunday.

Read the full story from Stefano Esposito here.

11:45 a.m. 3 more Cook County court employees test positive for COVID-19

Three more employees have tested positive for the coronavirus in Cook County’s Office of the Chief Judge.

One employee works at the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, raising that building’s positive cases to 97 staff and 79 residents, according to a statement from the chief judge’s office.

Read the full story here.

7:31 a.m. 32 aldermen ‘deeply concerned’ with CPS’ reopening plans as some teachers refuse to return

The Chicago Teachers Union said Sunday that many of its members expected back to school Monday are telling principals they will teach only remotely, as a majority of Chicago aldermen said in a letter to the mayor they are “deeply concerned” with the reopening plans.

The moves mark an escalation of the months-long campaign by CTU for a safe reopening and further complicates plans of Mayor Lori Lightfoot and schools chief Janice Jackson to start bringing back some teachers and students on Monday.

Also Sunday, a majority of Chicago’s City Council wrote a letter to Lightfoot and Jackson to say they are “deeply concerned” with Chicago Public Schools’ scheduled reopening this month, expressing doubt in the racial equity and health and safety aspects of the city’s plan.

The 32 aldermen laid out nine steps the city should take as it looks to send students and staff back to classrooms, and urged the mayor and school district to collaborate with the teachers union over its concerns.

At least 5,800 employees are scheduled to return to their schools Monday for the first time since the pandemic began, with another 861 granted medical leaves and about 300 requests still pending, according to CPS. The educators work in preschool and special education cluster programs, whose students are set to return Jan. 11. Thousands more are set to return Jan. 25 ahead of a Feb. 1 reopening for K-8 schools.

Read the full story from Nader Issa here.


News cases


Analysis & commentary

8:47 a.m. Parents can’t trust CPS to open schools safely

With all due respect to the doctors who wrote an open letter in the Sun-Times supporting the reopening of Chicago Public Schools in the midst of a raging pandemic [“As medical doctors, we believe reopening Chicago’s schools is essential and safe,” Dec. 29, 2020], CPS parents are not as optimistic as they are about the school district’s ability to keep our children safe.

After years of broken promises, filthy schools, overcrowded classrooms, crumbling buildings, lack of nurses and other basic necessities in our schools, I simply don’t trust CPS to protect my child from contracting COVID-19.

And I’m not alone. Some 70 % of CPS parents plan to keep their students home, learning remotely in January, regardless of the district’s promises. My son’s school’s Local School Council (of which I am a member) just adopted a resolution opposing the back-to-in person school order.

COVID infections and deaths in children may be rare. But the American Academy of Pediatrics just reported that 2 million American children tested positive for COVID in the last month alone. And what about their family members and their teachers? Why does CPS think it’s acceptable to put any of them in harm’s way?

The virus is still raging. The mayor continues to tell Chicagoans to stay at home. And everyone, from Dr. Anthony Fauci to Dr.Allison Arwady, is predicting things will only get worse in the coming weeks. CPS, do the right thing for once. Protect our children and their teachers. Scrap your ridiculous, dangerous plan to reopen school buildings until this deadly virus is under control.

— Catherine Henchek, Member of Vaughn Occupational High School LSC and Parents 4 Teachers

Read more from our letters to the editor here.