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Preckwinkle: COVID-19 filling half of Stroger Hospital beds, and ‘crunch time’ still a month away

Though the county faces “tremendous financial challenges,” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle wouldn’t say if that would mean layoffs for any county workers.

Wearing a protective mask, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle holds a news conference in April.
Wearing a protective mask, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle holds a news conference on Tuesday.
Sun-Times file

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said Wednesday half of the patients at Stroger Hospital are being treated for coronavirus, and the county’s finances face an uncertain future because of efforts to stem the spread of the pandemic.

Though the county faces “tremendous financial challenges,” Preckwinkle wouldn’t say if that would mean layoffs for any county workers.

“Crunch time for us I think is May, and my financial staff is working very hard to figure out where we are financially and what projections are for revenue and expenses and beyond,” Preckwinkle said.

The county’s flagship hospital currently has 200 patients and about half are being treated for the virus, Preckwinkle said during a conference call with the National Association of Counties.

“I can’t tell you whether any of those, or all of them, are insured either in private insurance or through a Medicaid expansion program or Medicaid itself, but half of our patients in the hospital at the moment are COVID-19,” Preckwinkle said. “The impact on us is pretty considerable and, of course, the governor has said that we haven’t reached the peak yet in terms of what he expects in Illinois.”

That insight into what’s going on at Stroger Hospital came not long after Preckwinkle announced she will be self-isolating until the end of the week after a member of her security detail tested positive for coronavirus.

Preckwinkle joined a few other county executives around the country for the call, which focused on how counties are responding to the pandemic.

In the call, Preckwinkle talked about the county’s health care response as well as the effect on the county’s finances, noting the newly launched community relief initiatives to help small businesses.

About 65% of the county’s revenues are “economically sensitive,” including the sales tax, the board president said.

But steps already taken have put the county budget in a better position than most, Preckwinkle said, essentially making the county “the nicest house on a bad block.”

“We’re very mindful of the serious impact a recession will have on our budget,” Preckwinkle said. “We’ve experienced large shortfalls in the past, as well as dramatic losses of revenue. We’ve always made the tough decisions to meet our fiscal obligations, and we always will. This has been a very difficult month, but we are rising to the challenge.”

The board president said there’s “a great deal of volatility in the bond market” that’s of concern to county officials who are monitoring the situation closely, Preckwinkle said.

Preckwinkle said the county’s chief financial officer and his team are trying to determine the overall impact the pandemic will have on the county and hope to have budgetary projections by the end of the month.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle holds a news conference
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle holds a news conference to talk about how the county will help businesses hit hard by coronavirus containment efforts last month.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times file

The county has reserves to cover expenses for a little over two months, but Preckwinkle said, “Clearly, when the economy falls off a cliff, even people who have the recommended reserves are challenged.”

The board president said her staff was meeting later Wednesday to talk about what they see ahead for the county fiscally.

As for layoffs, Preckwinkle said the county won’t have “sufficient reserves to keep all of our employees on forever, so the question is how long is the shelter-in place order [will] continue, and then what is our fiscal situation.”