SPRINGFIELD – In the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. J.B. Pritzker recalls being handed a report from researchers at the University of Illinois.
The analysis was written by scientists and mathematicians who were trying to estimate how many deaths and hospitalizations would occur under different scenarios – one if the state took no action, another if it imposed only moderate mitigation measures and yet another if it imposed significant measures, such as a stay-at-home order.
“And without any mitigations, their projection was, just in the Chicago area alone, we would see 40,000 deaths in approximately four months,” Pritzker recalled in an interview last week.
He said he still keeps a copy of that report in his office.
On March 9, 2020, Pritzker issued his first statewide disaster declaration related to COVID-19, a declaration he would go on to renew every 30 days for more than three years.
In the following days, he would issue executive orders closing schools to in-person attendance, then closing bars and restaurants and, eventually, a general stay-at-home order that would shutter all “nonessential” businesses for months to come.
“We were advised by the Department of Homeland Security that there were certain kinds of businesses that should be deemed ‘essential,’ and the Department of Homeland Security had a list that they had put together for these sorts of emergencies,” Pritzker said. “And so that was what we used and what virtually every state used to determine what should stay open and how to keep people safe.”
Now, more than three years after he issued that first disaster declaration, the last of his pandemic-era executive orders have expired. Pritzker announced in January that Illinois’ disaster declaration would end on May 11, the same day chosen by the Biden Administration to end the federal COVID disaster declaration that also dates back to early 2020.
From a practical standpoint, most people won’t notice the end of the disaster declaration because the state pandemic-related orders that most directly affected their daily lives – school closures, mask mandates, limits on public gatherings – have long since expired.
But for some, it will mean the end of certain federally funded benefits.
“There are no restrictions,” Pritzker said. “Why was there a disaster declaration? Because in order for us to receive the federal benefits that were being offered to SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] recipients, who are the poorest people in our state, people who needed Medicaid, who are the poorest people in our state, you needed to match up your disaster declaration and executive orders with the federal government’s executive orders and disaster declaration. So we did that.”
Pritzker said some people will receive less aid through SNAP and some Medicaid recipients could lose their eligibility, but he said those changes will not have a significant impact on the state budget.
The end of the disaster declaration also meant that as of May 11, testing and many of the treatments for COVID-19 will no longer be free, although Pritzker said they will be covered by insurance.
Looking back over the last three years, though, Pritzker reflected on what it was like during the initial weeks and months of the pandemic when scientists and public health officials all over the world were still trying to understand this novel virus.
“We didn’t know much about COVID-19, or even how it was spread,” he said. “Remember early on, there was some belief that it could be spread on surfaces. And so people were wearing gloves to open their packages and things like that.
“So there wasn’t a lot of information. What we knew was that the most effective way to keep people safe in the early moments of this would be for people to keep some social distance.”
Over the course of the next several months, Pritzker held daily news conferences – usually accompanied by his public health director at the time, LaGrange resident Dr. Ngozi Ezike – to relay the most recent information, announce new mitigation orders and provide the latest statistics on infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths.
“Remember, communication to the public was vitally important when the federal government was providing very little,” Pritzker said. “And so that’s the reason why I was at that podium every day, for months straight. It was because people needed to know what the latest information was.”
By summer 2020, the state began to gradually roll back many of the mitigation orders on a region-by-region basis and by the end of the year, the first vaccines became publicly available.
Throughout 2021, new variants of the virus would emerge, leading to temporary spikes in COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths. But as the vaccines became more widely distributed, the death and hospitalization rates started falling steadily, and in 2022 Pritzker began phasing out many of mitigation orders that had been in place.
Pritzker maintains that as a result of those measures, Illinois avoided the direst predictions of the mathematicians and scientists at the University of Illinois. According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, as of April 30, the entire state of Illinois has seen 36,850 confirmed COVID-19 deaths, and another 5,155 “probable” disease-related deaths.
“But if one were to look at how Illinois handled the pandemic – and this is kudos and gratitude to the people of Illinois – people did the right thing,” Pritzker said. “And the vast majority of people in Illinois understood what they needed to do. They heard what they needed to do from the experts, and they did it. And the result of that is, to the extent one can use the word ‘success’ here, the result is that we had real success here at keeping people safe and alive.”