State says all adults can get shots starting April 12, but suburban counties stay cautious
Gov. J.B. Pritzker is expanding COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to all Illinoisans age 16 and older effective April 12 and loosening restrictions on activities using a gradual approach to reopen the state based on the number of people inoculated.
"It's time to begin to cautiously move toward normalcy, and it's imperative that we do so in a way that maintains all the progress we've made to date," Pritzker said, citing a trend of decreasing COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
He introduced a future "Bridge Phase" that would increase capacity at shops, restaurants, conventions, festivals and social events like weddings from the state's current Phase 4 rules.
Pritzker has said the White House is promising to ramp up delivery of vaccines to Illinois, including the one-dose Johnson & Johnson shot.
He noted that federal vaccine shipments to Illinois this week have surpassed 800,000 doses. That number should top 1 million doses a week in April, and the state is averaging about 100,000 shots in arms a day.
"COVID-19 has not gone away, but the light at the end of the tunnel is brighter," he said.
But it's unclear whether the thousands of suburban seniors age 65 and older plus essential workers who are currently eligible for vaccinations, but who can't get appointments, will be vaccinated by April 12, when the next stage opens up to millions more people.
Despite talk of light, "we're still in the tunnel," Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said at a briefing. "We're clearly still in the middle of struggling with the pandemic."
The vaccination bottleneck could delay reaching the Bridge Phase.
To reach the Bridge Phase, 70% of Illinoisans 65 and older must have received at least one dose of a vaccine, plus the state must have 20% or more of its ICU beds available for patients and hold steady on COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths over 28 days.
About 58% of seniors have had one shot, and the state is vaccinating about 1% of adults a day.
Pritzker said the state's face mask mandate will remain in place until the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lifts that rule.
Currently, the state is allowing inoculations for essential workers such as police and people age 65 and older -- Phase 1B -- plus individuals under 65 with serious medical conditions like cancer that could cause worse outcomes from the virus, or Phase 1B-plus.
Collar county health departments have limited shots to the Phase 1B group because of an insufficient supply of vaccines.
"DuPage County will continue to provide vaccinations to all eligible residents while addressing the reality of vaccine availability constraints," DuPage County Health Department spokeswoman Stephanie Calvillo said.
"DuPage County is receiving about 18,000 doses of vaccine next week, and we will continue to work through our higher-risk populations, including individuals 65 years and older, front-line essential workers, and then individuals age 16 to 64 with underlying medical conditions or disabilities as the statewide eligibility expands."
Cook County is not starting Phase 1B-plus until Monday.
"We are confident in the state and federal government assurances that much more vaccine is on its way, and we look forward to moving quickly through the next phases in an equitable and efficient manner," Cook County Department of Public Health spokesman Don Bolger said. "We'll continue to study the data and monitor progress and announce future phases when appropriate."
If over a 10-day period, cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 trend up as ICU beds decrease, the state will revert to a previous phase.
"Rather than flipping a switch and saying we're now in Phase 5, we're looking at it more like a dial -- dialing back some of the capacity restrictions that helped reduce transmission," Illinois Department of Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike said.
"I think the idea of using vaccine metrics to opening things is a good one," said Jonathan Pinsky, Edward Hospital's medical director of infection control and prevention. However, "I think we run into trouble if we start allowing gatherings with people who have not been vaccinated."
Some examples of Bridge Phase changes are doubling the number of participants at festivals, expanding museum attendance to 60% from 25%, and expanding store and fitness center capacities to 60% from 50%. Weddings and social gatherings rise from the lesser of 50% or 50 people indoors to 250 individuals.
The Bridge Phase would also permit meetings, conventions and conferences with up to 1,000 people or 60% of capacity.
"Every bit helps. ... Getting our convention business going again and putting fans in stadiums puts diners in seats in our local restaurants," Illinois Restaurant Association CEO Sam Toia said.
Asked why he didn't use a solid time frame, Pritzker said, "I'm not going to set a date. (The pandemic) ebbs and flows." And instead of using an 11-region approach that has been the model, the shift to the Bridge Phase will be based on metrics for the entire state.
The state also adjusted some Phase 4 rules Thursday, such as allowing large movie theaters with space for 200 or more viewers to operate at 25% capacity.
"This is huge and exciting," said Classic Cinemas CEO Chris Johnson, who can now reopen his vintage Tivoli Theater in Downers Grove.
The state also announced that effective Thursday people with proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 PRC test one to three days before an activity do not count toward capacity limits.
The final step in reopening Illinois and moving to almost pre-pandemic conditions is Phase 5.
To reach Phase 5, 50% of Illinoisans 16 and older must have been vaccinated and the same metrics used for the Bridge Phase for cases, deaths, hospital admissions, and ICU beds will apply.