Suburbs, Chicago now in separate COVID-19 regions as state aims to target hot spots

New Illinois COVID-19 prevention strategies include splitting the suburbs into separate regions to target outbreaks and shutting down specific activities if public health is at risk, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Wednesday. Chicago will be its own region, as will suburban Cook County. Other regions are: West Suburban comprising DuPage and Kane counties; North Suburban comprising Lake and McHenry counties; and South Suburban comprising Kankakee and Will counties.

The move "allows us to move decisively ... focusing on detecting localized outbreaks with new mobile testing capacity," Pritzker said.

Pritzker's comments came as the Illinois Department of Public Health on Wednesday reported 1,187 new cases of COVID-19 and eight deaths. The state's COVID-19 test positivity rate is at 3.1% based on a seven-day average.

Overall, Illinois is being split into 11 public health districts, and the state will tighten restrictions in a variety of settings when cases of the virus surge.

"We can then take targeted actions within specific regions to help mitigate the spread of this deadly disease while keeping as much of our state open as possible," state health Director Ngozi Ezike said.

Indoor restaurants and bars, which fall into a high-risk category for COVID-19 exposure, would automatically be restricted if a region's COVID-19 numbers raised alarms. Offices, organized recreational activities like youth sports, retail stores, hair salons and religious gatherings also could see limitations if testing and contact tracing indicated a connection.

The state will use a three-tiered system to gradually increase restrictions as warranted. For example, if COVID-19 is rapidly spreading in a region, the first recourse would be to reduce indoor restaurant capacity and suspend indoor bar service. If conditions don't improve, the next step would be to halt indoor dining and, finally, shut down all service except takeout.

What will cause the state to act?

Factors include a sustained increase in the seven-day average positivity rate for COVID-19 tests and either a seven-day hike in hospital admissions for related symptoms or a reduction in ICU and hospital bed capacity of 20% or higher.

Another trigger would be three consecutive days with 8% or higher rates of positive results on COVID-19 tests.

Currently, the collar counties and suburban Cook County are considered stable and are meeting all health metrics, according to the state. Chicago carries a warning for registering 58 new virus cases per 100,000 people; the state target is less than 50.

This spring, Pritzker introduced a five-phase, four-region reopening plan, prompting criticisms the areas were too large and that lumping Chicago in with the suburbs would hamstring economic recovery.

In May, the Northwest Municipal Conference that includes Arlington Heights and 41 other suburbs asked to be extracted from the mega-region.

"I am pleased to see that the governor has now broken the state into the 11 Emergency Medical Services Regions that have traditionally guided statewide public health efforts," Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes said, adding it was "a more equitable way to account for similarities between communities."

Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico said, "I think this was the right thing to do. Clearly Chicago is experiencing COVID much differently than the collar counties, and the collar counties are experiencing COVID much differently than the rural counties. This decision will allow the governor to use a unique strategy with each region."

The resurgence prevention plan comes when "Illinois now has the lowest infection rates among all our neighboring states and one of the lowest positivity rates in the country," Pritzker said.

"Opening up our economy does not have to come with a spike in cases, but that requires vigilance," such as wearing masks and social distancing, he said.

Health experts will closely monitor outbreaks involving youth sports, said Pritzker, adding he is "deeply troubled" by multiple cases of COVID-19 among students at Lake Zurich High School and in Knox County.

Under the updated guidelines, the state could first reduce indoor capacity at gyms and fitness centers in a region if a COVID-19 resurgence occurred, then suspend all organized indoor recreational activities, and, lastly, halt indoor and outdoor sports and recreation.

Pritzker also urged school districts devising plans for students to return to class this fall to make face coverings a priority.

"I wouldn't let my own children return to a school where masks are not mandatory," Pritzker said.

Statewide, there have been 156,693 cases of COVID-19 and 7,226 fatalities. Hospitalizations for COVID-19 came to 1,454 as of Tuesday, a slight uptick from the seven-day average of 1,416.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced a new regional approach to handling COVID-19 cases at a briefing in Chicago. Daily Herald File Photo
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