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Preckwinkle boned up on history before writing her own chapter battling pandemic

In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, she talks about Cook County’s response to the virus and how it has affected her personally.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle with other elected officials and health experts, speaks to reporters about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle with other elected officials and health experts, speaks to reporters about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

Toni Preckwinkle was more prepared than most for the upheaval unleashed by the coronavirus thanks in part to her habit of scouring the shelves of her neighborhood bookstore.

Early this winter, perusing the stacks at Powell’s Books in Hyde Park, the Cook County Board president happened upon “Pandemic 1918: Eyewitness Accounts from the Greatest Medical Holocaust in Modern History.”

She bought the book on the deadly Spanish influenza pandemic to be ready even though she had little idea of the “nightmare” ahead.

“We started hearing about the pandemic in China, of course, in December,” Preckwinkle said. “So it was on the remainder shelf at Powell’s, and I said, ‘Well, this is coming, so I should read this book.’ ”

She soon started sounding the alarm. She’d bring the sobering book to work and call for meetings even as some of her staff was “snickering” about the boss’s concern, according to chief spokesman Nick Shields. No one’s laughing now.

In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Preckwinkle talked about the county’s response to the virus and how it has affected her personally — from checking in on her daughter, a nurse whose patients are immune-compromised, to watching episodes of “The Crown” and “The Letter for the King” as a break from a bleak reality.

About two-thirds of the employees in Preckwinkle’s office are working from home, thanks to the shelter-at-home demands sparked by the rapidly spreading coronavirus pandemic.

“Social distancing in effect” signs posted at the Cook County Board of Commissioners meeting room last month.
“Social distancing in effect” signs posted at the The Cook County Board of Commissioners meeting room as Board President Toni Preckwinkle held a special meeting last month.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

But Preckwinkle and two other employees still come to her offices at the county building, 118 N. Clark St.

Shields said a “handful” of employees have the virus, though he believes no one has died.

Preckwinkle is holding meetings and conferences online as so many others now are doing.

“We’ve been doing these Zoom things, which my staff is helping me do,” Preckwinkle said. “I don’t like it.”

When Shields interjected to say the county is actually using Microsoft Teams, not Zoom, Preckwinkle thanked him wryly for the correction.

The Hyde Park Democrat is navigating the crisis much like everyone else, though with the demanding addition of her government duties.

And like virtually everyone else, Preckwinkle has been affected by it. A friend lost an aunt, and two of the woman’s cousins were hospitalized this past week. And then Preckwinkle got a call that Archbishop Lucius Hall, founder and pastor of First Church of Love and Faith and a leader in gospel circles, had died. His South Side church lost six of its parishioners in the past week, Preckwinkle said.

“We will not get through this without knowing people who are sick and knowing people who have passed away,” she said.

There’s also her daughter, a nurse at a dialysis center who’s been going to work every day and yells at her “to be careful.” Preckwinkle worries, especially given the health concerns of her daughter’s patients.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle with Gov. J.B. Pritzker and other elected and health officials.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle with Gov. J.B. Pritzker and other elected and health officials.
Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

As for not appearing regularly at Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s daily COVID-19 briefings, Preckwinkle said, “Those are the governor’s press conferences.”

A spokeswoman for the governor said invitations to Preckwinkle and Mayor Lori Lightfoot go out “probably at least one a week or every other week” and depend on “what we’re doing that’s statewide or city based” or “what message we’re sharing that day.”

And the frosty relationship between Preckwinkle and the woman who beat her in last year’s mayoral race apparently has been suspended, like so many other things.

Preckwinkle said she spoke with the mayor in the past week about “some of the challenges the city faced around school closures” and that their chiefs of staff speak regularly.

The mayor angered many when she ordered the lakefront and public spaces closed — and spawned a social media barrage of memes depicting a scowling Lightfoot standing guard over everything from the Lakefront Trail to the Last Supper.

Preckwinkle has avoided all that by declining to shut down the forest preserves, saying she hasn’t seen much crowding.

But, like Lightfoot, Preckwinkle has held her own news conferences on a range of coronavirus-related topics, including making sure people complete their census forms, providing small businesses with relief and describing the state of the county’s health care system.

Preckwinkle said she is focused on the care the county provides and on making sure there are as few people in the “petri dish,” or the Cook County Jail, as possible.

The potential increase in uninsured patients needing intensive care is creating a “tremendous financial challenge,” Preckwinkle said, to a health system and county government overall that already was under intense financial pressure to provide unreimbursed charity care.

Asked whether the health system’s finances could become a coronavirus casualty themselves, Preckwinkle said, “We hope not. We will, as we have in the past, care for the majority of the uninsured.”