16 more dead, 715 new Illinois COVID-19 cases as McCormick Place 'hospital' prepares to open

A massive makeshift hospital at McCormick Place in Chicago is expected to be ready to handle its first batch of coronavirus patients as early as Friday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced during his daily briefing Thursday.

The announcement came as Illinois health officials said 16 more residents had died and another 715 were diagnosed with the disease since the day before, bringing the state's death total to 156 and the number of infected to 7,695.

Pritzker said the field hospital would serve patients with less severe symptoms.

"We should all be very proud, honestly, of the work that has been done so quickly by these patriotic Americans," Pritzker said of the construction team setting up the medical facility. "They've built out that facility in five days. They know they're doing something that's going to save lives."

But the state continues to struggle with personal protective equipment for health care workers and first responders, he said. Assistance from the federal government has not been adequate, he said.

Pritzker continued his critique of the federal government's response to the outbreak Thursday, referring to it as a "profound failure."

He argued the lack of "early action" by the federal government created Illinois' need for additional hospital space.

The facility at McCormick Place as well as the former Sherman Hospital building in Elgin and the shuttered MetroSouth Medical Center in Blue Island were tapped by state officials to serve as field hospitals and should be fully operational later this month. Ultimately, the McCormick Place medical facility could house 3,000 beds.

But Pritzker said fears of an even greater bed shortage at existing hospitals has forced the state to add a fourth field hospital, the former West Lake Hospital in Melrose Park, which will house 230 additional beds. A fifth site downstate is being considered.

The need for additional hospital bed space in the Chicago area is clear, health officials said. Suburban Cook County and Chicago remain the epicenter for the state's caseload and have one of the largest concentrations of infections in the nation, according to researchers tracking the pandemic at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.

Almost three-quarters of the state's coronavirus infections are Cook County residents, according to Illinois Department of Public Health reports. Most of the deaths occurred in Cook County, too. That number grew Thursday.

Among the dead are 12 Cook County residents: a man in his 30s, a man in his 40s, a woman in her 40s, two women in their 60s, one man in his 60s, four men in their 70s, a woman in her 70s and a man in his 80s.

Elsewhere, a woman from DuPage County in her 80s, a man in his 60s from McHenry County, a woman in her 90s from Whiteside County and a man in his 80s from Christian County also died, according to an IDPH report.

On a more positive note, IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said she spoke Thursday with a couple in their 70s who live in suburban Cook County and were the third and fourth cases of coronavirus in the state. She reported the two, one of whom was hospitalized at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights, are feeling good and wanted the public to know that they had recovered.

But she warned that workers at essential businesses are becoming infected and urged owners to follow safety protocols for the health of their workers and customers. Additionally, she urged religious leaders around the state to call off all in-person religious services as Passover, Easter and Ramadan approach.

"I understand the importance of communing with fellow believers," she said. "But we all must make this sacrifice."

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