CHICAGO (CBS) — As the total number of novel coronavirus cases in Illinois reached nearly 6,000 on Tuesday, state authorities also were facing the added challenge of trying to slow an outbreak within one of the state’s maximum security prisons.
As of Tuesday afternoon, 937 more cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Illinois, including 26 more deaths. Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said Illinois now has a total of 5,994 cases, including 99 deaths, in 54 counties.
The announcement came as Gov. JB Pritzker confirmed he is extending the statewide “stay at home” order through the end of April, as the number of coronavirus cases continues to grow.
Ezike said some hospitals already are reaching capacity of ICU beds and ventilators as they admit an influx of COVID-19 patients. She noted even people who are only moderately ill might still need medical care, even if they don’t require intensive care or a ventilator.
“We want to make sure we have enough resources for those who are the sickest in order to reduce the overall number of people who are exposed and infected with COVID-19,” she said. “We want to make sure that everyone who needs an ICU bed, everyone who needs a ventilator will get the care that they need, and that’s why it’s so important that we flatten the curve. The concern is that our medical resources will be stretched to their limits, and so that’s why staying at home will help us have the healthcare capacity we need.”
Meantime, Pritzker said the Illinois Department of Corrections is continuing to take steps to prevent the spread of the virus among prison inmates. As of Tuesday afternoon, a total of 24 staff and 32 inmates at Illinois prisons have tested positive for COVID-19, the vast majority at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, according to IDOC. One inmate at Stateville has died.
“Any and every one of our DOC residents who falls seriously ill with COVID-19 will receive available medical assistance to get through it, including an ICU bed and a ventilator if necessary. An incarcerated person is a person, and my administration will not be in the business of claiming one life is worth more than another,” Pritzker said.
The governor said the state will do everything it can to assist hospitals near Illinois prisons to deal with the influx of infected inmates, but warned any hospitals that refuse to admit inmates that he will call them out by name. He said hospitals can be compelled by law to treat inmates who are sick.
Pritzker said the state already has suspended all visits at Illinois prisons, moved all of its prison facilities to quarantine mode, and assured access to hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies for all staff and inmates. The Illinois Emergency Management Agency and IDPH also have made multiple deliveries of personal protective equipment to prisons; including more than 160,000 N95 masks, more than 200,000 surgical masks, and tens of thousands of gloves. The governor said the state was sending an additional shipment of PPE to Stateville on Tuesday.
ICOC also is requiring all staff on duty to wear PPE, and opening parts of prisons that were closed to allow for further social distancing. The state also has been reviewing the cases of all low-risk inmates for possible early release, to reduce the state’s prison population — already at its lowest level since 1995 — and allow for better social distancing behind prison walls.
The governor said more than 300 inmates have been released early as of Tuesday afternoon in response to the coronavirus outbreak; largely pregnant women, new mothers, and low-level offenders who were near the end of their sentences.
“All have been thoroughly vetted to make sure that there are no histories of violence – and particularly domestic violence – and all had homes to return to,” Pritzker said. “We’re working hard to balance the need to free up as much space in our prisons as possible with making sure that we’re not releasing those who may pose a risk to their communities.”
Pritzker said it’s already a challenge to find suitable homes for some inmates when they complete their sentences, and the situation is not being made any easier with the virus outbreak.
While the governor has signed an order to halt the transfer of convicted felons from county jails to state prisons during the outbreak, he noted the director of IDOC still has the authority to accept transfers when necessary, such as to help relieve overcrowding in county jails.
“We inherited a prison system that has suffered from overcrowding after decades of tough on crime policies focusing on punishment without attention to rehabilitation,” Pritzker said. “When we get through this immediate crisis, we all need to have a real conversation about criminal justice reform, and the status and conditions of our state prisons.”