The year of the pandemic: COVID-19 pushed us to the limit. Illinois pushed back.

  • Illinois National Guard troops stand ready in a makeshift tent May 21 in the Rolling Meadows High School parking lot as they prepare to handle several thousand people who will be flowing through for free COVID-19 testing.

    Illinois National Guard troops stand ready in a makeshift tent May 21 in the Rolling Meadows High School parking lot as they prepare to handle several thousand people who will be flowing through for free COVID-19 testing. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 12/31/2020 10:00 AM

It was just one case. Illinois' sole COVID-19 infection was announced Jan. 24 and the public moved on.

One case became 19 on March 10. Nineteen infections morphed into 46 on March 13, prompting Gov. J.B. Pritzker to close schools and urge people to avoid unnecessary trips.

 

"This virus is here to stay," Illinois Department of Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike said.

As the unthinkable spiraled, Illinoisans still at work began making grocery lists and wondering what to tell their kids.

March 17 brought a total of 160 cases, the state's first virus death and an outbreak at a DuPage nursing home, which ultimately killed 14 people. When he was notified, "I said, 'Oh my God.' My heart sank," county board Chairman Dan Cronin said.

On March 20, with 585 infections and five people dead of the respiratory disease, Pritzker imposed a stay-at-home order. "You have a right to the truth because you can bear it," he said.

With 894,367 infections, 15,123 deaths, 425,900 unemployed, and $2 billion of pandemic debt, the COVID-19 crucible has transformed our lives, broken hearts and continues to test us every day.

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This is our COVID-19 year.

Early days

Screenings of passengers from the Wuhan region of China, where COVID-19 originated, began Jan. 24 at O'Hare International Airport, too late to intercept a Chicago traveler who became Illinois' first known virus case. She recovered after treatment at AMITA St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates.

"We're taking this very seriously as with any coronavirus," Chicago Public Health Department Commissioner Allison Arwady said at a Jan. 24 news conference.

The IDPH began assessing hospital readiness and building testing capacity, but on Feb. 29, just three COVID-19 cases were reported, including a Palatine man in his 70s admitted to Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights.

School districts dusted off communicable disease protocols, but for many residents, it seemed unreal.

"Not concerned about the illness itself at all. Concerned about the panic mongering and over reaction of paranoid people," one commentator wrote on an unofficial Elgin Area School District U-46 Facebook group.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

A deadly spiral

Cases of toilet paper and boxes of pasta flew off shelves at grocery stores March 12 as uneasy shoppers stocked up after a reality check. That day, Pritzker banned gatherings of more than 1,000 people, including professional sports games, with COVID-19 diagnoses hitting 32 statewide.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker lowers his head as Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike announces seven deaths Sept. 21 during a daily news briefing.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker lowers his head as Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike announces seven deaths Sept. 21 during a daily news briefing. - Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP

"I am not going to hesitate to take the most aggressive measures possible to protect the people of our state," the governor said.

The move swept dancing leprechauns and bagpipe bands off the streets as many organizations nixed St. Patrick's Day parades.

March 13 brought 46 cases and another gut punch when the state closed school buildings for two weeks beginning March 17. Remote learning was later extended to the end of the school year. Some districts had already sent students home "out of an abundance of caution," Northwest Suburban High School District 214 Superintendent David Schuler said.

The presidential primary election went forward as scheduled March 17, but no St. Patrick's Day revelries ensued after bars and restaurants were shuttered, with exceptions for carryout, preemptively March 15.

The stadium lights are turned on April 17 at Mundelein High School in a "Friday Night Lights" event to show support for Mundelein health care workers, students, and community members.
The stadium lights are turned on April 17 at Mundelein High School in a "Friday Night Lights" event to show support for Mundelein health care workers, students, and community members. - John Starks | Staff Photographer

The stay-at-home order kicked in at 5 p.m. March 21, emptying streets and closing malls. Metra ridership plummeted by 95%, and O'Hare International went quiet with flights decreasing by 67% in April.

With no banquet hall to welcome guests, engaged couples like Lake Zurich resident Nina Pece and fiance Justin Greenhalgh postponed their weddings.

"I respect why we have to do it, but it still hurts," Pece said.

By March 29, the state recorded 4,596 virus cases and 65 deaths. Hardest hit were those 80 and older, currently constituting 48% of fatalities. Many families said goodbye forever by phone, with hospitals and nursing homes closed to visitors.

Among them was Robert Kanney, 91, of Vernon Hills, a retired engineer and "the glue" that kept his family together. His stark graveside service was limited to four people.

"It's really a lonely send-off," daughter Anne Gulotta said.

Cabin fever

Should I douse groceries with antiseptic spray? How do I social distance? And what is Zoom? Unfamiliar questions surfaced as the state hunkered down in April.

Some pupils cheered when the school closure announcement came, but educators' initial stabs at remote learning left many kids missing their actual teachers.

Students without adequate technology or family support floundered and meltdowns erupted everywhere as flailing parents appealed to Siri to explain the lowest common denominator.

Pete Schorr, physician assistant for Edward-Elmhurst Hospital, swabs the nose of a drive-up patient being tested for the COVID-19 virus March 23 in the parking lot at the Edward-Elmhurst Health Corporate Center in Warrenville.
Pete Schorr, physician assistant for Edward-Elmhurst Hospital, swabs the nose of a drive-up patient being tested for the COVID-19 virus March 23 in the parking lot at the Edward-Elmhurst Health Corporate Center in Warrenville. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

As cabin fever grew, one novel excitement involved sticking a swab up your nose in front of Illinois National Guard troops at COVID-19 test sites popping up everywhere.

On April 15, Americans got a three-month tax filing reprieve while Illinois marked 24,593 infections and 948 deaths with 4,423 patients in hospitals.

Hospital workers coped with panicked patients and full wards, fighting a disease with a limited playbook.

"It was chaos," said Bonnie Haddad, a registered nurse at Elmhurst Hospital. "Two patients died in a four-hour period. It was awful. I had to deal with the death of one patient, and then the death of the other."

Other essential workers from grocery store clerks to police to Metra conductor Demetrios Vatistas helped keep the state running.

"I've been doing this for 24 years, and I've never seen anything like this," Vatistas said.

As the economy retracted with resulting layoffs and business closures, the Illinois Department of Employment Security was overwhelmed with over 755,000 initial unemployment claims from March 1 to April 18 -- 12 times what it handled in the same period in 2019.

Ron Smaga of Bloomingdale waited four weeks for IDES to schedule a phone interview in late April. "Uncertainty is something I hate," the unemployed property manager said.

Catherine Ori's family gathers to celebrate her 100th birthday Sept. 9 in Lindenhurst outside at The Village at Victory Lakes. The family sang all of her favorite songs to Ori through the patio door.
Catherine Ori's family gathers to celebrate her 100th birthday Sept. 9 in Lindenhurst outside at The Village at Victory Lakes. The family sang all of her favorite songs to Ori through the patio door. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

And a new holiday tradition began -- warnings against large celebrations for Easter, Passover, Eid al-Fitr, and a request for "virtual hugs" on Mother's Day from the IDPH's Ezike.

In the suburbs, workarounds for COVID-19 malaise included car parades, "Zeder" or a Zoom Seder, and a Sunday drive renaissance.

On May 5, when Illinois recorded 65,962 virus cases and 2,838 deaths, Jonathan Davila of Addison was released from Elmhurst Hospital after 44 days battling COVID-19. "It came to a time where I didn't believe he was going to come home," said Davila's wife, Ashley King.

Pandemic politics

Initially, Republicans had largely backed the stay-at-home order, but pushback started building in April.

Several GOP lawmakers filed lawsuits or proposed legislation to curb what they considered Pritzker's abuse of executive power.

"The idea that a governor can repeatedly and unilaterally continue to issue disaster declarations and exercise unparalleled power and authority over nearly every aspect of our lives ... is truly troubling," state Sen. Dan McConchie of Hawthorn Woods said.

After weeks of experts equivocating about face coverings and skepticism from President Donald Trump, Pritzker mandated masks in public effective May 1, a day that brought the state's COVID-19 tally to 56,055 cases and 2,457 deaths.

That rule created some drama at a historic Illinois General Assembly session May 20 when GOP Rep. Darren Bailey of Xenia was ousted for flouting the rules.

On the federal level, Pritzker frequently flayed the White House for bungling the pandemic response, provoking Twitter responses from President Donald Trump accusing the governor of "always complaining."

'Off the peak'

Warm weather ushered in "Phase 3," a relaxation of the stay-at-home order effective May 29 after 117,455 cases and 5,270 fatalities statewide.

"We seem to have come off the peak," Pritzker said.

Masked up and 6 feet apart -- the new norms -- Illinoisans got hair cuts, worshipped at outdoor services, and dined alfresco at restaurants.

"I think I shed tears of joy this morning," said Zuzanna Grabowska, a waitress at Armand's Pizzeria in Arlington Heights.

But sports stadiums stayed empty as did most public pools, and thousands of high school seniors graduated virtually or at arm's length.

"I know most people would say they really missed all the senior events -- prom and all the big things like graduation, for one -- but for me, what I really missed most was going to school," St. Charles North class President Rebekah Phaiboun said.

Reopening the state coincided with Black Lives Matter rallies and marches after George Floyd died when a Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee down on his neck May 25. Glomming on to the protests were vandals looting Naperville, Aurora and other suburbs.

One constant through the pandemic has been the disproportionate impact on Black and Hispanic communities, particularly in low-income areas.

"(The pandemic) has emphasized what we've known all along," said Randy Hodges, a Baptist pastor and adjunct professor at Elgin Community College. "We are subjected to a lot of things that the other communities may not be subjected to."

COVID-19 survivor Chuck Drungelo is discharged from Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital July 1 in Wheaton after many weeks and is elbow-bumped by patient care technician Katie Reimer, one of the nurses who helped Chuck get back on his feet.
COVID-19 survivor Chuck Drungelo is discharged from Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital July 1 in Wheaton after many weeks and is elbow-bumped by patient care technician Katie Reimer, one of the nurses who helped Chuck get back on his feet. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

As cases continued to level off, Illinoisans embraced "Phase 4" of reopening on June 26, allowing groups as large as 50 people to gather, movie theaters and museums to open with capacity limits, and indoor dining to resume.

Going forward, "we are going to coexist with COVID," Ezike said.

Danger signs

Illinois enjoyed a COVID-19 downtime over the summer with daily cases and hospitalizations subsiding compared to spring highs.

But during that lull, tensions escalated between those supporting restrictions and people who didn't -- like virus skeptics, jobless workers and frustrated student-athletes facing fall without football.

On Sept. 8, COVID-19 cases stood at 252,353, deaths at 8,186, and some Community Unit District 300 residents rallied against remote learning plans, one of several similar protests.

"The kids need an education, and Zoom is not an education," Algonquin resident Sharon Vandermeir said.

Several hundred people attended a demonstration for reopening schools Sept. 21 near Naperville Central High School.
Several hundred people attended a demonstration for reopening schools Sept. 21 near Naperville Central High School. - John Starks | Staff Photographer

On Oct. 8, new COVID-19 cases surpassed 3,000 recalling spring highs, and on Oct. 15, the count went over 4,000, as experts warned of a second surge.

Restaurant owners seeing cold weather ruin their outdoor setups hit the boiling point as indoor dining restrictions loomed.

"A shutdown now would be a death sentence," said Spiro Roumpas, owner of Ki's Steak and Seafood restaurant in Glendale Heights.

Some authorities, like McHenry County State's Attorney Patrick Kenneally, refused to enforce an indoor dining ban imposed by Pritzker.

On Nov. 15, the state recorded 573,616 cases with 10,742 dead Illinoisans. New COVID-19 cases that day reached 10,631 while patients in hospital came to 5,581, far above April averages.

Respiratory therapist Aminderjit (Andy) Dhanoa, 37, gets the first COVID-19 vaccination Dec. 17 at Edward Hospital in Naperville from RN Nikki Carini-Wardecki.
Respiratory therapist Aminderjit (Andy) Dhanoa, 37, gets the first COVID-19 vaccination Dec. 17 at Edward Hospital in Naperville from RN Nikki Carini-Wardecki. - John Starks | Staff Photographer

"I probably cry at work every day," Northwest Community Hospital nurse Nicole Kinberg said.

On Nov. 17, Pritzker introduced a new round of restrictions intended to stem the tide of infections and hospitalizations.

After 10 months of COVID-19-induced grief, fear, anger and resilience, Illinois' zeitgeist went beyond COVID-19 fatigue. The arrival of vaccines in mid-December was life-changing, no matter how bumpy the rollout.

"We've been playing defense for the last 10 months. Now we have a chance to play offense," Loyola University Medical Center physician Richard Freeman said.

After being discharged from Elmhurst Hospital on April 5, after a 44-day stay for COVID-19, Jonathan Davila, 30, of Addison, gets a hug from his son Mason, 5, who is held by Davila's stepson Daniel Hernandez, 16.
After being discharged from Elmhurst Hospital on April 5, after a 44-day stay for COVID-19, Jonathan Davila, 30, of Addison, gets a hug from his son Mason, 5, who is held by Davila's stepson Daniel Hernandez, 16. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

In Addison, COVID-19 survivor Davila walks with a cane and goes to rehab twice weekly to get feeling back in his hands. He hopes to return to work in March 2021 and rejoices that he can once more play with his 5-year-old son and be with his family.

"Just keep pushing yourself and don't give up," he said. "There's always hope."

• Daily Herald staff writers who contributed to this story include Burt Constable, Jake Griffin, Madhu Krishnamurthy, Lauren Rohr, Robert Sanchez and Katlyn Smith, as did Cassie Buchman with Shaw Media Services.

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