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Coronavirus live blog, Dec. 22, 2020: Illinois continues lowering COVID-19 positivity rate with 6,239 new cases reported

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

Key COVID-19 metrics appear to be trending in the right direction in Illinois, but officials aren’t ready to take a victory lap just yet.

Here’s what made headlines in coronavirus-related news.


News

8:56 p.m. 116 more Illinois coronavirus deaths, 6,239 new cases as positivity rate falls

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Illinois’ coronavirus numbers took another step in the right direction Tuesday as public health officials announced 6,239 more people have contracted COVID-19, while another 116 residents died of the virus.

The new cases were diagnosed among 84,764 tests submitted to the Illinois Department of Public Health, lowering the state’s average positivity rate over the last week to 7.4%.

That number, which indicates how rapidly the virus is spreading, has shrunk almost by half compared to the peak of Illinois’ autumn resurgence when it soared to 13.2% on Nov. 13.

On Monday, the state reported its smallest daily caseload in almost two months, with 4,699 new infections. That’s still higher than the springtime peak of 4,014 reported on May 12, but it’s less than a third of the all-time high 15,415 cases reported on Nov. 13.

The state has averaged about 6,800 new cases per day over the last week compared to a staggering rate of about 11,800 cases per day this time last month.

Read the full story here.

5:31 p.m. CPS expects $720M windfall through new federal COVID-19 relief package

Chicago Public Schools officials are expecting to receive about $720 million through the coronavirus relief package passed by Congress Monday, funding that will help fill holes for the financially strapped district and support the school system’s planned reopening in the new year.

CPS leaders can collectively breathe a sigh of relief after the district’s budget for this fiscal year had assumed at least $343 million in federal funding, a risky calculation that ended with more than double the anticipated funds after a months-long stalemate in Congress.

“This crucial federal funding ensures our ability to support the critical resources needed to reopen classrooms, expand access to high-quality academic programming, employ record high numbers of nurses and social workers, invest in social and emotional supports, and provide additional resources to our highest-need schools,” CPS CEO Janice Jackson said in a statement.

Reporter Nader Issa has the full story.

3:26 p.m. 1,500 Cook County health care, sheriff’s employees walk off the job for one-day strike

More than 1,500 employees of Cook County’s health care and sheriff’s departments walked off the job Tuesday morning after their union was unable to come to an agreement with the county over pandemic pay and working conditions.

Outside of Stroger Hospital, chants of workers demanding hazard pay nearly drowned out Joseph Richert, SEIU Local 73 secretary treasurer, as he said it is unconscionable that 10 months into a global pandemic that union members were still demanding proper protective gear.

“This is crazy and the county needs to act now,” Richert said.

In a statement Friday, SEIU Local 73 — the union representing county health technicians, service and maintenance workers, and sheriff’s office employees — alleged the county has refused to bargain in good faith for nearly three months, walking out on negotiations, canceling dates or refusing to set them.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said she respects the rights of the employees but was “deeply disappointed that the union would ask some of its members to strike during a global pandemic.”

The county government has used coronavirus relief bill money to provide pandemic pay to employees and other unions, including members of SEIU Local 73, in hospital and other settings, Preckwinkle said in a statement.

Read the full story here.

3:06 p.m. South Carolina governor tests positive for the coronavirus

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster has tested positive for the coronavirus and was slated to receive outpatient antibody treatment for “mild symptoms,” his office said Tuesday.

McMaster, 73, learned he had tested positive late Monday following a test “due to coming into close contact with the COVID-19 virus,” his office said in a release. McMaster’s wife, 73-year-old Peggy McMaster, tested positive last week but remains asymptomatic, officials said.

On the advice of his personal physician, the governor was slated to receive monoclonal antibody treatment Tuesday, which his office called a “preventative measure for those with mild to moderate symptoms.” Saying that McMaster was in “good spirits” and continued to carry on his official duties, his office said the governor was “experiencing mild symptoms with a cough and slight fatigue.”

The governor was tested last week at the same time as his wife but had a negative result at the time, his office said.

Read the full report here.

12:50 p.m. Lyft will offer free and discounted rides to vaccination sites

Lyft is partnering with health care organizations across the country to offer free and discounted rides to Americans who may need assistance getting to a site where they can receive a COVID-19 vaccination.

The ride-hailing company announced a nationwide campaign Tuesday in partnership with JPMorgan Chase, United Way, and healthcare organizations including Anthem, Centene, One Medical and Epic, and set a goal to provide 60 million rides.

The free or discounted rides will be offered in the form of credits to low-income, uninsured and at-risk communities. Lyft will partner with local nonprofits to identify candidates and distribute the credits, in coordination with health care providers that offer vaccination. The effort will particularly prioritize “seniors living alone, low-income workers, and parents with young children,” according to Megan Callahan, MPH, VP of Lyft Healthcare.

The rides will be subsidized by Lyft’s corporate partners, according to a release.

Callahan said in a statement announcing the initiative that “lack of transportation is one of the top reasons people miss medical appointments,” and estimated that “15 million Americans will face transportation issues trying to get to vaccination sites.”

— Anne Costabile

10:39 a.m. Woman finds apparent COVID-19 test in Kohl’s package

CHICAGO — An Illinois woman who ordered flags for her grandmother’s garden got a surprise when the package arrived — someone’s apparent COVID-19 test specimen.

Andrea Ellis was wrapping Christmas gifts at her aunt’s house in East Moline, in northwestern Illinois, when she opened a padded envelope containing the flags she ordered weeks ago from the department store chain Kohl’s, according to The Quad City Times.

“I pulled out the flags and I told my aunt, ‘Look how cute these are,’” she said. “I pulled out the packing slip and then noticed something deeper inside the envelope and pulled that out. It was a biohazard bag containing someone’s COVID-19 test specimen.”

Ellis, who didn’t immediately reply to a Monday phone message from The Associated Press, called the police, who referred the issue to the county health department, according to East Moline police Chief Jeff Ramsey.

Janet Hill, the chief operating officer at the Rock Island County Health Department, told the AP that she picked up the biohazard bag over the weekend and that it appeared to contain a used nasal swab and identifying information of a person from Virginia. She said she was figuring out what to do next, including contacting health officials in Virginia and trying to determine if the specimen was still viable.

“I’ve never heard of anything like this,” Hill said. “I want this person to know that the test has not been done yet.”

Read the full story here.

10:01 a.m. COVID-19 relief money expected early next week: Mnuchin

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) speaks alongside a bipartisan group of Democrat and Republican members of Congress as they announce a proposal for a Covid-19 relief bill on Capitol Hill on December 14, 2020 in Washington, DC. Lawmakers from both chambers released a $908 billion package Monday, split into two bills. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775600675
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) speaks alongside a bipartisan group of Democrat and Republican members of Congress as they announce a proposal for a Covid-19 relief bill on Capitol Hill on December 14, 2020 in Washington, DC. Lawmakers from both chambers released a $908 billion package Monday, split into two bills.
Tasos Katopodis, Getty

Congress passed a $900 billion pandemic relief package Monday night that would finally deliver long-sought cash to businesses and individuals and resources to vaccinate a nation confronting a frightening surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

The relief package, unveiled Monday afternoon, sped through the House and Senate in a matter of hours. The Senate cleared the massive package by a 92-6 vote after the House approved the COVID-19 package by another lopsided vote, 359-53.

The bill combines coronavirus-fighting funds with financial relief for individuals and businesses. It would establish a temporary $300 per week supplemental jobless benefit and a $600 direct stimulus payment to most Americans, along with a new round of subsidies for hard-hit businesses, restaurants, and theaters and money for schools, health care providers and renters facing eviction.

The 5,593-page legislation — by far the longest bill ever — came together Sunday after months of battling, posturing and postelection negotiating that reined in a number of Democratic demands as the end of the congressional session approached.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, a key negotiator, said on CNBC Monday morning that the direct payments would begin arriving in bank accounts next week.

Read the full report here.

6:55 a.m. Biden gets COVID-19 vaccine, says ‘nothing to worry about’

NEWARK, Del. — President-elect Joe Biden on Monday received his first dose of the coronavirus vaccine on live television as part of a growing effort to convince the American public the inoculations are safe.

The president-elect took a dose of Pfizer vaccine at a hospital not far from his Delaware home, hours after his wife, Jill Biden, did the same. The injections came the same day that a second vaccine, produced by Moderna, will start arriving in states. It joins Pfizer’s in the nation’s arsenal against the COVID-19 pandemic, which has now killed more than 317,000 people in the United States and upended life around the globe.

“I’m ready,” said Biden, who was administered the dose at a hospital in Newark, Delaware, and declined the option to count to three before the needle was inserted into his left arm. “I’m doing this to demonstrate that people should be prepared when it’s available to take the vaccine. There’s nothing to worry about.”

The president-elect praised the health care workers and said President Donald Trump’s administration “deserves some credit getting this off the ground.” And Biden urged Americans to wear masks during the upcoming Christmas holiday and not travel unless necessary.

Read the full report here.


New Cases


Analysis & Commentary

4:39 p.m. As COVID-19 rips through Cook County Jail, time to take a hard look in the mirror

I know the justice system from a few perspectives.

My first contact came when I spent half my life dependent on heroin, cocaine and prescription pills. I cycled through Cook County Jail more than a dozen times until a drug-treatment court helped me pave a path to sobriety that reached a five-year anniversary this month.

With stability and structure, I found a job providing employment services to people with criminal records like me. Today, I’m a regional director for The Bail Project, a national nonprofit that provides free bail assistance for those who cannot afford it, while working to end cash bail.

Whatever your opinions are regarding the ways we address the growing use of pretrial detention in America, I hope you’ll see that what is happening in Cook County Jail right now far exceeds the issue of bail. What we have is a human crisis that calls for action, compassion and courage.

Read the full column here.

3:04 p.m. Americans are sick of arbitrary COVID-19 restrictions

“I’m not sure we know what we’re doing,” San Mateo County Health Officer Scott Morrow recently confessed, referring to the myriad puzzling restrictions state and local governments have imposed in the name of fighting COVID-19.

Morrow’s doubts are striking, because last spring he joined other San Francisco Bay Area officials in imposing the nation’s first lockdowns, which he still thinks were justified.

Morrow’s remarkable statement, which he posted on his department’s website earlier this month, shows that politicians and bureaucrats are still struggling to justify edicts that are often arbitrary and scientifically dubious. A year into the COVID-19 epidemic, many of them have yet to digest the dangers of carelessly exercising their public health powers.

Although research in other countries has shown that K–12 schools are not an important source of virus transmission, they remain closed in California and many other jurisdictions, largely because of resistance from teachers unions. “The adverse effects for some of our kids will likely last for generations,” Morrow warned.

Read the full column from Jacob Sullum here.

7:18 a.m. A general apologizes — how refreshing

We can’t learn from our mistakes if we don’t fess up to them.

So it was refreshing over the weekend to hear Gen. Gustave F. Perna, head of the federal effort to distribute coronavirus vaccines, offer an actual apology — just when we feared the word had been stricken from the dictionary of politics.

Perna took the blame for the confusion created when the federal government miscalculated how many doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine could be shipped. At least 14 states, including Illinois, learned they would not be getting as many of the vials as they expected. On Dec. 16, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said the expected federal nationwide shipment of 8 million doses had been reduced to 4.3 million doses.

“It was my fault,” Perna said. “It was a planning error, and I am responsible.”

How often lately have we heard words like that from any top federal official, though the government’s response to the pandemic has been appallingly bad? Never once before, as best we can recall. Nobody says “I apologize.” Nobody says “I am responsible.”

Read the full editorial from the Sun-Times Editorial Board here.