Tuesday marks the one-year anniversary of Illinois’ first reported death from COVID-19. In the next 12 months, Illinois would go on to report nearly 21,000 more confirmed COVID-19 deaths, while more than 1.2 million Illinoisans have been infected so far.
But last week, the number of adults in Illinois who have been fully vaccinated overtook the number of people who have ever tested positive for the virus, and more than 20% of the state’s population has received at least one vaccine dose. Over the last week, Illinois has been averaging more than 100,000 shots administered per day.
Gov. JB Pritzker says that’s cause for optimism — but he’s careful to add that Illinois is not yet out of the woods, especially with three types of more contagious COVID variants spreading in Illinois. Officially, there have been 99 cases of the virus related to these more contagious variants first identified in the UK, South Africa and Brazil, though the actual number is likely much higher.
“I’m optimistic, I must say, overall — very optimistic — about where we are and where we’re going but I worry…about the possibility that the variants will overtake us as we’re trying to get everybody vaccinated,” Pritzker told NPR Illinois on Monday.
To mark one year of living — and governing — through a pandemic, Pritzker sat down with reporters across the state this week.
On moments of 'significant despair'
It’s been a year of grief for most Illinoisans, whether over the death or illness of a loved from the virus, loss of a job or business or even the disruption of a routine and family life. Pritzker admits that he’s also experienced moments of doubt, and pinpointed two points during the pandemic when he felt “significant despair.”
“I remember a moment in maybe late March of last year, when I realized that the federal government wasn't going to help, and that things were getting worse, and that I needed to make very hard decisions based upon the science that was being provided to me…about how we're going to acquire PPE and other things like that. And I think there was a moment in the midst of that when I felt some despair about the fact that no matter what I did, at this moment, things weren't getting better.”
Pritzker said he felt the same — “perhaps even more so” — in October, as the state’s case count and hospitalizations ascended to a deadly second wave as the weather got cooler and holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas loomed. Eventually every region of Illinois triggered COVID mitigations Pritzker had laid out in the summer, and in November, the governor moved all regions of the state to so-called Tier III mitigations, and froze them there until mid-January.
“I also recognized in the midst of all that, that I have a team of people around me and entire government around me, that is dependent upon my continuing to lead with, you know, some confidence,” Pritzker said. “As hard as it was going to be, we just had to keep going. We're doing the right thing by following the science.”
Pritzker said he often had to push his thoughts aside in order to keep crossing the next thing off his to-do list.
“When you're trying to balance your own internal feelings — a little bit of despair…you don't have time to do that, you can't do that, you've got to go out there and lead,” he said.
Unemployment, economic woes
Of course, beyond immediate life-and-death decisions, the pandemic has brought an accompanying recession. The Illinois Department of Employment Security processed more than 1 million jobless claims during March and April of last year as Pritzker’s stay-at-home order took hold. Illinois’ unemployment rate for last April hit 16.5%, according to IDES’ most recent revised estimate — a record not seen for decades.
IDES’ ability to process unemployment claims in a timely manner has been a persistent problem for Pritzker since nearly the beginning of the pandemic, and problems have mounted throughout the year. Fraudsters have used Illinoisans’ personal data — often acquired from large data breaches in recent years — to apply for unemployment benefits. The agency has gone after the fraud victims to pay back benefits they never filed for. Though the victims are not ultimately responsible for paying them back, the process for clearing their names has been time-consuming and stressful for many.
“Let me start by just recognizing that the day that you lose your job — those moments when you are unemployed, those are some of the most difficult moments in people's lives,” Pritzker said. “And we ought to get them their benefits as soon as humanly possible.”
With IDES employees still working remotely and Illinoisans with complicated unemployment cases still waiting weeks for answers, many lawmakers’ district offices turned into de facto triage centers last spring and summer, with aides temporarily reassigned to run interference between constituents and IDES. This dynamic has added tension to the relationship between Pritzker and lawmakers — even his fellow Democrats.
Pritzker knows IDES has been an issue, but insists the agency and its response are improving, especially after replacing the agency’s acting director with former Senate President chief of staff Kristin Richards last summer. But Pritzker is quick to restate the talking points he’s fallen back on time and again in the past year, blaming years of disinvestment in the agency, falling staffing levels and antiquated technology.
“When this pandemic hit and we got 10 times the number of applications for unemployment benefits that even were received during the Great Recession, and the systems that hadn't been invested in for 20 years…[it] made it very challenging to deal with a once-in-a — really — once-in-a-couple-of-centuries pandemic. So we've been investing in those systems and then people since the very beginning of the pandemic, to try to catch up with what was just a deluge [of unemployment claims].”
Illinois’ economy has begun to recover, but true healing won’t come until the state reaches herd immunity, which scientists estimate is anywhere between 70% to 90% of a given population vaccinated. But with vaccination rates improving, Pritzker has been hinting for weeks that he’s open to altering his economic reopening plan, which he first introduced in early May of last year and significantly changed in July.
On Monday, Illinois Department of Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike told a Senate panel that moving from Phase 4 of Pritzker’s “Restore Illinois” plan to Phase 5 — when life would be largely back to normal — won’t be “an on-off switch, but may be a dial.”
“It really does involve how much of our most vulnerable population has been vaccinated, and — of course — that starts with our seniors,” Ezike said. “So once we see a great majority of our seniors vaccinated that should get us to another level, and then we can start having at least larger size gatherings, like everything open up with some kind of capacity.”
But for now, masks — which are mandated in public per an executive order Pritzker issued last spring — will still be in.
“We think masks have to continue to be a mainstay,” Ezike told the Senate panel.
Pritzker is set to unveil the changes to his economic reopening plan this week.
Though vaccinations have hit a steady clip lately, vaccines administered to Black and Hispanic Illinoisans continue to lag behind white residents. Pritzker earlier this month unveiled a public service announcement campaign, putting up ads on TV and online, specifically targeted at minority communities. Nationwide data, however, reveals that white Republican men are the group least likely to get a shot.
“[There is a] lack of an existing healthcare system for many people of color who live in communities where there just hasn't been a clinic or any kind of health care access,” Pritzker said. “That's part of what we're up against. Another is vaccine hesitancy…that's an education issue.”
Pritzker says he’s continuing his focus on equity, and is pleased with the uptick in shots among Black and Brown communities, though the numbers are still comparatively lower than white Illinoisans. For example, of the 1.2 million Illinoisans who are fully vaccinated according to IDPH, only 7.6% of them are Black, though Black Illinoisans make up an estimated 14.6% of the state’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Approximately 8% of fully vaccinated Illinoisans are Hispanic/Latino, though that group comprises an estimated 17.5% of Illinois’ population.
Nationwide, COVID-19 has hit Black and Latino communities hardest. The ZIP code with the most cases per capita in the entire state is 60629, encompassing the Chicago Lawn and West Lawn neighborhoods on Chicago’s southwest side, and part of Gage Park. According to city data, more than 80% of residents in 60629 are Hispanic or Latino.
Though the city of Chicago is administering its own vaccine program separate from the rest of the state’s operation overseen by Pritzker and IDPH, the governor says he’s optimistic about vaccine strategies in minority communities.
“As we've tracked these numbers, a greater percentage of people of color are getting vaccinated than were before…because we've made sure that local public health departments are focused on equity, and that we're sending doses to places where we know we can get a greater equity outcome in the numbers,” Pritzker said. “So I feel good about the direction, but I won't feel good until really we’re up to the numbers that we ought to be at for communities of color.”
Pritzker's political capital
Though COVID-19 has been all-encompassing this year, Pritzker has also dealt with issues not directly related to the pandemic — and much ink has been spilled over a string of perceived political losses. In November, voters overwhelmingly rejected his signature graduated income tax constitutional amendment, which he spent more than three years — and millions of his own dollars — campaigning on as both a gubernatorial candidate and as governor.
Pritzker recently backed Chicago Ald. Michelle Harris (8) to head the Democratic Party of Illinois after the departure of longtime House Speaker Mike Madigan from party chair last month, only to see U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly of Matteson ascend to the position with backing from U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin. The governor also failed to muscle through a significant revenue-related bill during lawmakers’ Lame Duck session in January.
In these losses — coupled with the tension that’s built up between the executive and legislative branches of government during the past year where Pritzker has mostly ruled via executive order — does the governor think he has any bridges to mend with fellow Democrats and voters?
“Look, I've not been focused on the politics what I've been focused on is really keeping people safe, keeping them alive,” Pritzker said. “If I was focused on politics, I would have made different decisions and more people would have died.”
A recent poll from 1892 Polling found voters were split 41% to 41% on public opinion of Pritzker, with 18% reporting no opinion. Pritzker on Monday dismissed that poll for its pollster’s history in Republican politics, including former Gov. Bruce Rauner’s 2014 campaign, and instead pivoted to programs his administration set up to help struggling Illinoisans.
“It's been a difficult year for everybody, there's no doubt about it,” Pritzker said. “What I've been focused on is lifting people up trying to get them the assistance that they need, whether it's with the largest rental assistance program in the United States, the Business Interruption Grant [BIG] program, the childcare support program that we put in place — the largest in the United States and uses a model now nationally.”
The governor declined to answer other reporters’ questions Monday on when he might formally announce his re-election bid.
“My focus really has just been keeping people healthy, safe and keeping the economy going,” Pritzker told NPR Illinois. “The politics will take care of itself in the end.”