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One year later, Preckwinkle reflects on navigating through a viral storm — weathering ‘a time of painful loss’

In a sit-down interview, the longtime board president reflected on the tense and tragic year, both personally and as the county’s chief executive, and talked about some of her future plans, such as speaking more about the need for universal basic income.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle speaks during a news conference in the parking lot of the United Center in the Near West Side neighborhood on Tuesday.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle speaks during a news conference in the parking lot of the United Center in the Near West Side neighborhood on Tuesday.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic as if the county was “about to be hit by a tsunami.”

That’s what the reading she’d done at the time indicated as news of the virus began to dominate headlines. And the former history teacher said it shaped her perspective — and her approach.

“I told my staff early on ‘everybody’s going to know somebody who’s been sick, and everybody’s going to know someone who’s passed away,’” Preckwinkle said. “This is what we’re headed into. Everyone. And that’s surely been true, and so we have to figure out every way that we can to support folks.”

She’d studied the 1918 flu pandemic, and learned from it.

“What my reading told me was ‘you’re about to be hit by a tsunami, and so that’s the perspective that I took — a tsunami is coming,” Preckwinkle said.

In a sit-down interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, the longtime board president reflected on the tense and tragic year, both personally and as the county’s chief executive, and talked about some of her future plans, such as speaking more about the need for universal basic income.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle speaks with Illinois National Guard Major General Richard Neely before a news conference outside the United Center Tuesday.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle speaks with Illinois National Guard Major General Richard Neely, second from right, and others before a news conference outside the United Center Tuesday.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Preckwinkle issued a disaster proclamation a year ago Wednesday, an anniversary she and others plan to commemorate with a memorial event for those lost in Cook County.

Personally, the Hyde Park Democrat said she has worried about her daughter, who’s a nurse, who went from working with immunocompromised patients in a dialysis center to working in a local hospital treating patients who have COVID-19. Some of those patients have died from the deadly virus.

Preckwinkle said she also hasn’t seen her grandchildren — who call her “kiddo” — or son and daughter-in-law in about a year since they’ve moved out of the city.

“This has been an extraordinary moment for all of us, a time of painful loss, and that’s true for us as individuals and it’s true for us collectively and that’s made this year very, very difficult,” Preckwinkle said.

Her reading on the 1918 global flu pandemic instilled the message to “listen to your public health professionals,” a motto that the board president said became her standard operating procedure.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle at a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic last March.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle at a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic last March.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

That guidance influenced the “robust testing program, caring for people who were hospitalized” and setting up vaccination sites throughout the county in collaboration with the state and Gov. J.B. Pritzker, to whom Preckwinkle said she was “particularly grateful.”

At the Tinley Park mass vaccination site, where Preckwinkle herself was vaccinated, about 2,000 people per day can receive the inoculation, a number that can be ramped up as more vaccines become available. Funds from the recently passed COVID-19 relief package will be put toward the county’s vaccination efforts, Preckwinkle said.

The board president said the county has also focused on economic development, establishing a cash assistance program that’s given $600 in unrestricted funds to suburban county residents, ultimately distributing $8.3 million in funds to 13,887 households.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is joined by Gov. J.B. Pritzker at the first large-scale community vaccination site in the Tinley Park Convention Center in January.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is joined by Gov. J.B. Pritzker and other elected officials for a tour of the first large-scale community vaccination site as it prepared to open in the Tinley Park Convention Center in January.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times file

Because of the success of that program, Preckwinkle said she and her team are looking into the policy behind a universal basic income locally, saying “historically, in this country, the way in which we’ve dealt with poverty is to provide programs for poor people — but we haven’t done the obvious which is give them more money so they’re not poor.”

“So, one of the things we’re going to do is speak more about the need for universal basic income, and look to programming that supports people so that they have more to meet the needs of themselves and their children,” Preckwinkle said. “The best thing we can do to eliminate childhood poverty is give their parents money so they can take care of them better.”

The county also set up utility, mortgage and rental assistance programs, invested in the Chicago-Cook Workforce partnership to “support the retraining and re-education of folks,” as well as small business assistance programs and a direct assistance program for gig workers hit hard during the pandemic.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, second from left, walks through Daley Plaza in October.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, second from left, walks to a news conference about the launch of the Cook County COVID-19 Recovery Mortgage Assistance program at Daley Plaza in October.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Preckwinkle said the county will continue its vaccination efforts and encouraging people, especially those in Black and Brown communities, to get the shot and follow the pandemic protocol of washing hands, watching distances and wearing a mask despite “plague fatigue.”

“We’re not having trouble persuading white people that they ought to be vaccinated, and, given that Black and Brown people have experienced the most losses, it’s particularly important that Black and Brown people step up and get the vaccine,” Preckwinkle said.

“I know there’s an infinite number of terrible stories about the way both Black and Brown people have been abused by the medical system in this country … but we really need to step up in this moment and get vaccinated to protect ourselves to protect the people that we love, protect our neighbors and protect our communities.”