Pritzker Defends Coronavirus Data Used To Ban Indoor Dining

CHICAGO — Gov. J.B. Pritzker defended the metrics used to guide his regional COVID-19 resurgence mitigation plan, which have triggered restrictions on indoor service at restaurants and bars across most of the state.

Coronavirus positivity rates in all but one region of Illinois are above the 8 percent fail-safe threshold that leads to increased restrictions under the governor’s Restore Illinois plan and executive orders.

“Let’s be clear,” Pritzker said. “Well-meaning and reasonable people can have fair disagreements about how and where to draw lines and connect dots, but when every single metric in every single corner of our state is trending poorly, we have to take meaningful action to keep our people safe”

In addition to a positivity rate that has risen by 3.4 percentage points since Oct. 1, the number of hospitalized patients with COVID-19 rose by 73 percent, while the number of coronavirus patients in the state’s intensive care units is up by 61 percent this month, according to Illinois Department of Public Health data Pritzker shared at a briefing Thursday in Chicago.

Of the two regions where restrictions have yet to be imposed: Region 6, the Champaign EMS region, is on track to see restrictions announced Friday, having already averaged two days above the 8 percent mark. And Region 2, the Peoria EMS region, saw its positivity rate rise to 7.9 percent on the most recent day for which data was available.

The restrictions can also be triggered by a period of seven out of 10 days with both increasing positivity rates and an increasing rounded rolling average number of new daily hospitalizations of people with coronavirus symptoms. That led to the first tier of mitigations in suburban Cook County and Chicago before the regions also triggered restrictions by spending three days above the 8-percent mark.

“Bars and restaurants are spreading locations,” Pritzker said. “We need to clamp down because we need to bring the numbers down. They’re headed in the wrong direction, and unfortunately bars and restaurants are the location — no fault of the people who own them or operate them or even people who visit them — but it is true that those are places where there is a higher transmission likelihood than other locations.”

Tiered mitigations restricting indoor dining and limiting the size of gatherings have been imposed on nine of the state’s 11 regions. Region 3, the Springfield emergency medical services region, Thursday became the latest to trigger the additional measures. One region — Region 1 in Northwest Illinois — has advanced to the second tier of mitigations. “Tier 2” includes a 10-person gathering size limit and a six-person limit at outdoor tables.

Pritzker was asked whether the first two tiers of limitations that be enough to curb the spread.

“I don’t know. I really would like to know the answer to that. This virus is unknowable, seemingly,” he said. “We didn’t know when we put the stay-at-home order back in March, we didn’t know if that was enough. We didn’t know if the Tier 1 mitigations we put in for Region 4 and Region 7 would 100 percent work — we had a pretty good idea because we thought these were spreading locations, if we close down indoor service — guess what? It worked. So we have this regional plan because it does work. We’re hoping it will continue to work.”

Pritzker addressed why his administration has been highly focused on coronavirus specimen positivity rate — the percentage of samples tested that test positive for the virus that causes COVID-19.

Records released following a public records request revealed that Pritzker was advised that positivity rate “should not be used to determine policy.” Relying on the rates is “not scientifically founded” and risks both credibility and scientific accuracy, according to one of the epidemiologists who advised the administration.

University of Chicago epidemiologist Sarah Cobey recommended community-level serology tests to better track infection rates and control the virus. A similar mix of rapid antigen testing and antibody testing, combined with extensive contact tracing was credited with reducing the infection rate in New York to the second-lowest in the nation.

Pritzker did not address serology testing in his answer defending the state’s use of specimen positivity metrics.

“Just looking at the number of cases, for example, doesn’t really tell you anything. There are states around the country that aren’t testing. So, guess what? They don’t show any cases, or very few,” he said. “And you can’t make a judgement about how widespread the transmission is occurring, whether they’re truly mass community spread, unless you’re looking at positivity rates. So that’s an important thing about why we rely upon test positivity, and that’s what we use, absolutely, for decisions about mitigations. We also use hospitalizations.”

The governor then turned over the microphone to University of Chicago Dr. Emily Landon, an infectious disease expert. She said there was no single right way to respond to the pandemic.

“It’s not my decision, I’m just one piece. I’m just one voice. The governor gets to make the decisions, he’s our elected official, and he gets to find a way to balance all of those different experts that are speaking in his ear,” Landon said. “There’s no one right way to do it.”

Pritzker was asked if he thought closing the interiors of restaurants and bars to the public would lead to more unsafe gatherings at private properties.

“Obviously, there’s very little we can do when people are engaging in that,” the governor acknowledged. “We’re not going to knock on the door and take people away, or something like that. That’s never going to happen. We are asking people to take personal responsibility for themselves, for their families, for their neighbors, for the friends they invite over.”

Bars and restaurants who defy the state’s orders face fines and the potential loss of state-issued business interruption grants, Pritzker said. He said lawyers offering to represent business owners in lawsuits against the state were going to lose.

“We can’t stop attorneys from being snake-oil salesmen and trying to convince people to take them on as an attorney,” he said. “These folks’ve been in business since time immemorial and I guess they’ll keep doing what they do. The reality is, we’re going to beat them in court — we already have.”

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Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, said the largest share of new coronavirus infections have been detected in people in their 20s. She attributed a lack of data about where the coronavirus was spreading to the unwillingness of some people who contract the disease to talk to contact tracers.

As of Oct. 15, Illinois had about 3,100 contact tracers — about half as many staff as there are new cases every day. Estimates from the group Test and Trace found the state only has enough tracers to track down one out of every 10 new cases. Illinois is not one of the more than a dozen states that make contact tracing data public.

Ezike said local health departments were hiring more contract tracers but warned the county-level agencies are being stretched thin. She urged those who test positive for the virus to be forthcoming and promised their identities would be protected.

“We are doing our best to collect as much information as possible so that we can have the most complete picture of where COVID-19 is spreading, but of course we can’t do that without your participation. We’re hearing from the local health departments and the contact tracers every day that someone people won’t answer the phone, and if they do answer the phone, they don’t give the answers to the questions,” Ezike said.

“Please give as much information as you can,” she added. “Public health officials can only track information that we’re given. We can only share information that we have.”

This article originally appeared on the Across Illinois Patch

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