High risk, low profile? As COVID-19 warning levels increase across more of Illinois, Pritzker’s briefings don’t

Gov. J.B. Pritzker hasn’t held a news conference on COVID-19 in three months, but his office says the governor and his public health team remain on top of the situation. Experts aren’t sure more briefings would help, given how tired many are of hearing about the virus.

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker announces that Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike is stepping down at a news conference at Rush Hospital on March 1.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker announces that Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike is stepping down at a news conference at Rush Hospital on March 1.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

SPRINGFIELD — Regular COVID-19 briefings were once a staple of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s plan to educate Illinoisans about the crisis and slow the spread of the deadly virus.

In the first couple of months of the pandemic in 2020, Pritzker held them daily — even on weekends for a good chunk of that time — before opting to ratchet down the frequency of his coronavirus briefings to an as-needed basis.

But now it’s been three months since the Democratic governor last scheduled a news conference to discuss COVID-19 — and cases are at levels not seen since early February, when the state was coming down from the worst surge of the pandemic.

The Illinois Department of Public Health reported 147,695 cases in May. That’s more than the case count totals from April and March combined and more than were reported in February, a month when Pritzker held one news conference dedicated to the coronavirus.

Pritzker held two in January during the height of the Omicron surge and one the month before. His last briefing was March 1, just a day after he lifted the state’s indoor mask mandate.

Pritzker’s office said the lack of regular briefings does not mean the governor and his public health department are not both still monitoring the situation, particularly COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker listens during his news conference in the Blue Room at the Thompson Center in February.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker listens during his news conference in the Blue Room at the Thompson Center in February.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

“The Governor regularly holds public events with press availability and welcomes press questions about the COVID-19 pandemic,” Alex Gough, a spokesman from the governor’s office, said in a statement. “Additionally, the Governor’s social media channels regularly provide information and real time updates as the health metrics evolve.”

“As he has done since the outset of the pandemic, the Governor will continue to follow the science and urge Illinoisans to get vaccinated, boosted and mask up when necessary.”

Although deaths from the virus have remained near a pandemic low for the state, hospitalizations have increased over the past few months.

The number of patients hospitalized with the virus has doubled since mid-March but remained steady over the past week. As of Thursday night, 1,227 coronavirus patients were in Illinois hospitals, 114 of them in intensive care units.

The rise in beds occupied by COVID-19 patients isn’t cause for alarm, said Michael Claffey, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Public Health.

“Overall, while community levels have moved to High and Medium levels in certain regions, case rates appear to have plateaued statewide in recent weeks, and we continue to have adequate capacity in hospitals around the state,” Claffey said in a statement.

On Friday, four more Illinois counties were added to the orange “high” risk level in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s color-coded rating system, bringing the state’s total to 19 “orange” counties — including most of the Chicago area. Another 31 counties are at the yellow “medium” risk level.

Color-coded risk map of Illinois based on U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data as of Friday.

Color-coded risk map of Illinois based on U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data as of Friday.

Illinois Department of Public Health

High risk means everyone is urged — but not mandated — to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. At the medium level, indoor masking is suggested for the immunocompromised and those 50 or older.

But because in-home test results don’t show up in the official caseloads, the number of infections could actually be two or three times higher in some counties, meaning the number of areas actually at higher risk levels could also be much higher, said University of Chicago epidemiologist Dr. Emily Landon.

“In other words, the number of cases that we’re having right now in Chicago and Chicagoland, Cook County is as many as we were having each day in January or February,” Landon said.

While less severe than the Omicron surge, which filled Illinois hospital beds to a pandemic record of 7,380 in mid-January, another wave of the virus is hitting the state and beginning to disrupt people’s lives, Landon said.

Dr. Emily Landon, executive medical director of Infection Prevention and Control at the University of Chicago talks to reporters at the Thompson Center in February.

Dr. Emily Landon, executive medical director of Infection Prevention and Control at the University of Chicago talks to reporters at the Thompson Center in February.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

“Could we make this wave less intense, and could we make it so that fewer things are disrupted? Absolutely. Are we doing it? No, we’re not,” she said.

But Landon and other experts aren’t sure more briefings are the answer.

“It’s hard to know whether or not that would help,” said Landon, who has occasionally joined Pritzker at some of his briefings.

Public health experts question whether the public would just tune them out.

“I think there’s a large portion of the population that has had enough and has turned off listening to what we have to say about COVID,” said Dr. Jeffrey Kopin, chief medical officer at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital.

“It’s certainly understood why they’re done. But the virus is not done with us as much as we want it to be,” Kopin said.

That COVID-19 fatigue also plays into the topic of masking.

Last week, Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady encouraged people to wear face coverings in crowded indoor settings, stopping short of reinstating any mandates.

“Mask mandates in this country are a third rail right now. Even people who were strong advocates are doing their best to not use the M word,” said Loyola Medicine Regional Medical Director Dr. Jorge Parada.

And whether more mandates are necessary is an open question.

“We’re transitioning into endemic COVID and living with COVID,” Parada said. “The number of people that are vulnerable to life-threatening COVID today is much, much, much less than it was two years ago.”

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