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Coronavirus live blog, Feb. 11, 2021: Lightfoot discusses vaccine availability for teachers, air quality in old school buildings in hour-long virtual town hall

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

“Vaccine is a part of the strategy, but just as a reminder, schools are safe,” Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady told Chicago Public Schools parents and students during an hour-long discussion. “Even without the vaccine, they’ve been open all over the country without seeing them be a source of significant spread.”

Here’s what happened Thursday in coronavirus-related news.


News

8:55 p.m. ‘Our schools are safe’: Lightfoot, school and health officials try to ease fears about CPS reopening plan in virtual town hall

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

During a virtual town hall Wednesday evening, Mayor Lori Lightfoot stressed that teachers and students’ health are a top priority as some prepare to go back to the classroom Thursday.

Less than 24 hours after Chicago Teachers Union members approved Chicago Public Schools’ plan to return to in-person learning, more than 500 people tuned in to the livestream hosted by Lightfoot, CPS CEO Janice Jackson and Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady.

Most of those viewers were CPS parents and students who sought clarity on the district’s reopening plan and shared safety concerns. The hourlong discussion covered vaccine availability for teachers, air quality in old school buildings and contact tracing.

Arwady said about 7,500 CPS staff members are scheduled to get vaccinated, and some have already received a dose.

“Vaccine is a part of the strategy, but just as a reminder, schools are safe,” Arwady said. “Even without the vaccine, they’ve been open all over the country without seeing them be a source of significant spread.”

Read the full story from Madeline Kenney here.


7:45 p.m. Over 9,000 virus patients sent into NY nursing homes: AP

More than 9,000 recovering coronavirus patients in New York state were released from hospitals into nursing homes early in the pandemic under a controversial order that was scrapped amid criticisms it accelerated outbreaks, according to new records obtained by The Associated Press.

The new number of 9,056 recovering patients sent to hundreds of nursing homes is more than 40% higher than what had been previously released by the state health department. And it raises new questions as to whether Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s March 25 directive helped spread sickness and death among residents, a charge his administration disputes.

“The lack of transparency and the meting out of bits of important data has undermined our ability to both recognize the scope and severity of what’s going on,” said Richard Mollot, the executive director of the Long Term Care Community Coalition, a residents advocacy group.

The new figures come as the Cuomo administration has been forced in recent weeks to acknowledge that the overall number of COVID-19 deaths among long-term care residents is nearly 15,000, up from the 8,500 previously disclosed.

Read the full report here.

4:45 p.m. First case of more infectious South Africa variant of COVID-19 detected in Illinois

A more infectious strain of COVID-19 first identified in South Africa has now been found in Illinois, raising concerns the state could be headed for another viral resurgence, public health officials announced Thursday.

The coronavirus variant known as B.1.351 was detected in a resident of Rock Island, one of the Quad Cities along Illinois’ western border with Iowa.

The discovery follows 22 cases confirmed in the Chicago area over the past month of another strain first found in the United Kingdom.

Both variants — and yet another from Brazil that has yet to show up in Illinois — spread more easily than the original virus that has upended life around the globe, but the current arsenal of COVID-19 vaccines rolling out nationwide still “recognize these variants and may offer some protection,” according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Read the full story from Mitchell Armentrout here.

3:52 p.m. Aldermen approve Lightfoot plan to overhaul Chicago Board of Health

The Chicago Board of Health was established in 1833 to provide the expert medical advice needed to fight the cholera epidemic at a time when there was no policy-making Department of Public Health.

It has remained largely unchanged ever since, with outdated rules and members who serve indefinitely, some since the 1990s.

On Thursday, the City Council’s Committee on Health and Human Relations approved Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to start over in a way that would mandate diversity and guarantee a range of expertise needed to meet the public health challenges laid bare by the coronavirus.

The eight-member board would be abolished and replaced with a nine-member board. Each member would serve a three-year term. The terms would be staggered, with three members turning over each year.

The ordinance requires the board to be “diverse” — racially, economically and in gender —and include experts in a variety of areas, including emergency preparedness, communicable and chronic diseases, maternal and children’s health and the social conditions that have created the nine-year life expectancy gap between Black and white Chicagoans.

Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said the ordinance also would make clear that she and her successors have the final say on public health rules in the city and that the board’s role is simply to advise the mayor on public health decisions.

“This would codify existing practice — which is an advisory role for the board and an executive role for [the Chicago Department of Public Health]. … There is nothing new that I, as commissioner, can do that I can’t already do” included in the mayor’s ordinance, Arwady said.

Read the full story from Fran Spielman here.

1:32 p.m. Lightfoot, Preckwinkle split with Pritzker, reject expanding COVID-19 vaccine pool: ‘We are not being supplied with enough doses’

While Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he remains optimistic about the state’s COVID-19 vaccine supply growing in the weeks ahead, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle on Thursday rejected his plan to expand the pool of eligible shot recipients later this month.

Doing so would add over a million people to the free-for-all playing out across the city and suburbs for the coveted and incredibly scarce doses, creating “an even harder time” for those still waiting at the head of the line, according to Lightfoot and Preckwinkle.

“While we are making progress every day with vaccinating people in [distribution phases] 1A and 1B, at this time we are not being supplied with enough doses that would allow us to expand eligibility in these phases,” the former political rivals said in a rare joint statement.

Read the full story here.

12:22 p.m. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Instagram account removed for posting vaccine misinformation

Instagram on Wednesday banned Robert F. Kennedy Jr., son of former presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, from repeatedly posting misinformation about vaccine safety and COVID-19.

Kennedy Jr. has amassed a huge following on social media, where he frequently posts debunked or unproven claims about vaccines. He also uses his social media pages to post about large pharmaceutical firms and environmental health concerns.

“We removed this account for repeatedly sharing debunked claims about the coronavirus or vaccines,” a spokesperson for Facebook, which owns Instagram, said Thursday.

The Children’s Health Defense, an organization founded by Kennedy which focuses on vaccines, did not immediately respond to messages.

Most recently, Kennedy Jr. has posted misinformation about COVID vaccines. In a late January post, he described COVID vaccines that are currently being administered in the U.S. as posing a potential danger, despite studies on tens of thousands of people that found no serious side effects.

The suspension of Kennedy Jr.’s Instagram account comes just days after Facebook, which owns Instagram, announced it would step up efforts block the spread of vaccine misinformation, including claims that the shots are ineffective, toxic, dangerous or cause autism. Countries around the world are ramping up efforts to inoculate citizens with version of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Read the full story here.

11:00 a.m. ‘Overwhelm the problem’: Inside Biden’s war on COVID-19

WASHINGTON — The meetings begin each day not long after dawn. Dozens of aides report in, coffee in hand, joining by Zoom from agency headquarters, their homes or even adjacent offices.

The sessions start with the latest sobering statistics meant to focus the work and offer a reminder of what’s at stake: new coronavirus cases, people in hospitals, deaths. But they also include the latest signs of progress: COVID-19 tests administered, vaccine doses shipped, shots injected.

Where the last administration addressed the pandemic with the vernacular of a natural disaster — using the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s mantra of a “federally supported, state managed and locally executed” response — President Joe Biden’s team is borrowing from the Pentagon and the doctrine of overwhelming force.

“We’re at war with this virus,” COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients said in an interview with The Associated Press between Sunday morning meetings on the response. “We’re taking every resource and tool the federal government has to battle on every front.”

Read the full story here.

9:06 a.m. Developer says Salesforce plans for Chicago tower are solid

Salesforce is committed to anchoring a new office tower on Wolf Point despite the company’s desire to trim real estate costs because many employees will work from home, the building’s developer said Wednesday.

Greg Van Schaack, senior managing director at Hines, said Salesforce is enthusiastically proceeding with its plan to occupy 500,000 square feet in the 60-story building. The last of three towers on Wolf Point, where the Chicago River splits into north and south branches, is under construction and due to welcome tenants in mid-2023.

“They have a fixed amount of space they have signed up for. Their design is evolving. Collaboration will be a bigger part of that, along with more flexible work areas,” Van Schaack said. The changes reflect how companies are trying to rethink workspaces in light of the pandemic.

The new building, called Salesforce Tower or 333 Wolf Point Plaza, will total 1.2 million square feet. Van Schaack said the pandemic has set back leasing efforts “a good 18 months,” but he expects the space will be in demand. “For the schedule we have, there’s still time for the world to start spinning again,” he said.

Read the full story from David Roeder here.


New cases


Analysis & Commentary

9:10 a.m. From Groundhog Day to Christmas morning: Getting vaccine a real shot in the arm for the COVID-19 blues

I’d been on hold a while, but probably no longer than 15 minutes, before a woman from the Cook County Public Health vaccination scheduling helpline answered the phone.

It had required dozens of calls and trips to the website to get through this far, but I’d made it to the same stage two previous times in the past week, so my expectations were low.

The two previous occasions I’d been politely told they didn’t have any more vaccine appointments “at this time” and was advised to try back later.

So, when the woman answered the phone Monday, and I asked if she had any openings, I’m sure my tone of voice sounded more defeatist than hopeful.

But then she said: “Could you do 1:30 p.m. tomorrow in Tinley Park?’’

I almost jumped out of my chair.

Of course, I could do 1:30 p.m. in Tinley Park. I could do 1:30 a.m. if they wanted, not that I offered.

For minutes afterward, I was stunned. What was this strange feeling I was experiencing? Relief? Happiness? Yes, happiness. It had been a while.

Keep reading Mark Brown’s column on getting the COVID-19 vaccine here.