Residents over 65, essential workers among 3.2M next in line for vaccine, Pritzker says as state prepares to ease restrictions in some regions

About 207,000 people have received shots in Illinois since Dec. 19, mostly health care workers and nursing home residents.

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Rush University Medical Center staff collect nasopharyngeal swab samples to test people for the coronavirus at the hospital’s drive-thru testing site in November.

Rush University Medical Center staff collect nasopharyngeal swab samples to test people for the coronavirus at the hospital’s drive-thru testing site in November.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

About 3.2 million essential workers and people older than 65 will be next in line for the coronavirus vaccine, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Wednesday as Illinois’ pandemic death toll surpassed 17,000.

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During his first COVID-19 update of the new year, Pritzker said he expects the state to advance to “Phase 1B” of its vaccine distribution plan in a few weeks as more doses become available from the federal government.

About 243,000 people have received shots in Illinois since “Phase 1A” started Dec. 19, including about 36,000 in Chicago. The state is still working to vaccinate the roughly 700,000 health care workers and 110,000 nursing home residents who are first in line under guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The “frontline essential workers” who will be next in line include first responders, teachers, grocery store workers; manufacturing, distribution and agriculture workers; postal workers, public transit employees, corrections workers and incarcerated people.

Additionally, Pritzker said the state is diverging from CDC guidelines in making the vaccine available to people 65 and older, instead of limiting it to those 75 and older. That’s in an effort to vaccinate communities of color which have suffered higher death rates in that age range, Pritzker said.

“I believe our exit plan for this pandemic must overcome structural inequalities that have allowed COVID-19 to rage through our most vulnerable communities,” Pritzker said.

The Illinois National Guard will be deployed to help launch mass vaccination sites.

“This is a race to get vaccines in people’s arms as fast as possible,” Pritzker said.

The next step in the historic vaccination effort was announced as the Illinois Department of Public Health reported the latest 139 fatalities attributed to COVID-19 statewide.

That raises the Illinois death toll to 17,096. It took only nine days for the state to hit the latest cruel mile marker in the 10-month pandemic, as Illinois eclipsed 16,000 deaths Dec. 28.

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That brutal fatality rate has actually slowed slightly compared to early December — Illinois’ worst stretch of the pandemic — when it took only six days for the toll to jump from 13,000 to 14,000 deaths.

The virus has claimed 3,860 Illinois lives over the last month, an average of about 125 deaths per day — or roughly one fatality every 12 minutes.

The latest victims included 44 Cook County residents, including two men in their 40s.

About half of Illinois’ deaths have come from nursing homes and long-term care facilities, where nearly 8,300 people have died with the virus. Overall, the recovery rate is 98%.

An additional 1,603 deaths statewide are considered to have been probable but untested coronavirus cases.

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Cook, Will and Kankakee counties showing improvement

Officials also announced the latest 7,569 cases of COVID-19, bringing the state’s pandemic case total to 999,288. The new cases were detected among 80,974 tests, slightly lowering the state’s seven-day average testing positivity rate to 8.4%.

That number, which indicates how rapidly the virus is spreading, topped 13% in mid-November and sank to 6.8% around Christmas. It rose for about a week after that, but has fallen from 8.6% to 8.4% over the last two days.

“I’m cautiously optimistic, as there are some early signs indicating that some regions have made real progress and won’t reverse that progress,” Pritzker said.

That means beginning next week, the Democratic governor will start allowing regions of the state to shed the Tier 3 mitigations he imposed at the onset of the state’s record-breaking resurgence in November.

Six of the state’s 11 regions — including Chicago, suburban Cook, Will and Kankakee counties — have improved enough to meet the metrics set by Pritzker’s health team to revert to Tier 2.

Going back to Tier 2 would reopen casinos and museums and raise capacity limits for retailers.

But indoor restaurant and bar service will still be prohibited. Regions will have to see sustained improvement to be allowed back to Tier 1, and even further to re-enter Phase 4 before that’s allowed.

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