ILLINOIS CAPITOL RECAP: UI test approval could be ‘game changer,’ officials say

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Recap 8-26-20

East St. Louis Mayor Robert Eastern III talks during an Aug. 17 news conference in his city about his recovery from COVID-19 this spring.

SPRINGFIELD — Gov. J.B. Pritzker and representatives of the University of Illinois announced a testing breakthrough on Aug. 19, which they said could eventually allow for greater suppression of new cases of the COVID-19 virus.

The state’s flagship public university was granted U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for rapid saliva-based testing similar to what is being used to test NBA players during their resumed season in Florida.

The test allows large-scale surveillance testing, is faster and cheaper than nasal swabs, and also identifies those who are not showing symptoms, according to UI President Timothy Killeen.

“Today’s announcement is yet another game changer,” Killeen said. “The pioneering saliva-based testing developed by our leading edge researchers in Urbana produces rapid results at costs that allow and permit large-scale surveillance testing. That combination is a key to curbing the virus, allowing isolation early enough to limit the spread of the infection.”

The rapid test, combined with contact tracing and other virus mitigation efforts, could help public health officials identify outbreaks before they get out of hand. Killeen said the UI has created an internal unit at the system level “that is working with the governor and his team to share the technology in Illinois.”

Officials from UI would not put a timeline on when the tests would be widely available, however, and the governor said it will not be immediate.

“We’re not going to be able to get these tests in people’s hands in districts before schools open in the next month. It’s not going to happen,” Pritzker said. “However, over the next couple of months, there is the possibility that with these bridging studies, with greater approvals, that we’ll be able to do much, much more across the state, and the state of Illinois is a partner in that endeavor.”

The test requires the subject to “drool a small amount into a sterile test tube,” according to a news release from the university. Tests yield results in hours, even at high testing volumes and the UI has performed more than 50,000 tests since making walk-up testing available to faculty, staff and students in July. It expects to conduct about 20,000 tests a day when the fall semester begins next week.

Metro East and COVID-19

State and local officials in the Metro East area near St. Louis cautioned residents on both sides of the Illinois-Missouri line on Aug. 17, to be diligent about protecting themselves and others from COVID-19.

“It is in the best interests of all St. Louis and Metro East residents, Illinoisans and Missourians alike, to take action now to bring down the positivity rate,” Pritzker said during a news conference in East St. Louis. “And we’re working together across the border to make sure that that happens.”

Pritzker’s comments came one day after the Illinois Department of Public Health announced new social and economic restrictions for the six-county area in the wake of the region’s rising number of cases and test positivity rate.

He was joined at the event by IDPH Director Dr. Ngoki Ezike, St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern, East Side Health District Administrator Elizabeth Patton Whiteside and East St. Louis Mayor Mark Eastern.

As of Aug. 14, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health, the region had experienced nine consecutive days of rising positivity rates, including four consecutive days of rates above 8 percent. The rolling seven-day average positivity rate stood at 8.9 percent.

“If you haven’t been taking this seriously yet, now is the time to start,” Pritzker said. “Wear a mask to maximize the chance that children can have in-person learning this fall. Maintain six feet of physical distance to keep the small business owners’ dining rooms open and retail stores in business. Each of us has a role to play in the future of this region’s health and economy.”

The new mitigation efforts are not as severe as those that were in place statewide during Phase 3 of the reopening plan, which ended June 26. But they are more stringent than those that have been in place during Phase 4. They include requiring bars and restaurants to close at 11 p.m. and limiting seating in those establishments to six people per table.

Bars are being told to seat people only at tables and to remove bar stools to prevent gathering around the bar.

Elsewhere, public gatherings, meetings and social events will be limited to 25 guests or 25 percent of the overall room capacity. All reception halls will be closed and party buses will be shut down.

Casinos are being ordered to close at 11 p.m. and are limited to 25 percent capacity.

Travel guidance

The Illinois Department of Public Health on Aug. 17, issued a COVID-19 travel advisory map, as well as guidance for people traveling domestically or internationally. The map shows states with an average daily case count 15 per 100,000 population or greater. Illinois is at 14 cases per 100,000 population.

The documents do not restrict Illinoisans’ travel but offer advice about the places that pose the highest risk and how to stay protected while traveling.

“We know that people may have to travel,” Ezike said, “but potentially based on where you may go, that travel may increase your risk of exposure to COVID-19 by putting you in contact with people who have a higher chance of having the virus.”

Jobless numbers

The unemployment rate in Illinois fell to 11.3 percent in July as the coronavirus pandemic’s grip on the state’s economy showed signs of easing.

The Illinois Department of Employment Security said the number of nonfarm jobs in the state grew by 93,200 in July, to just over 5.6 million. That pushed the unemployment rate down by 3.2 percentage points from the revised level for June. However, that was still 508,000 fewer jobs than the state reported in July 2019, when the state’s unemployment rate was just 3.9 percent.

The July rate was also lower than the state’s most recent pre-pandemic peak of 12.2 percent in January 2010. The highest unemployment rate recorded in Illinois since the modern system of measuring unemployment began in 1976 was 13.9 percent in February 1983 prior to the pandemic. The unemployment rate peaked at 16.8 percent in April.

But Illinois’ July rate was also 1.1 percentage points higher than the national rate.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 21,956 workers in the state filed first-time unemployment claims during the week that ended Aug. 15. Although still historically high, that was 978 fewer than the prior week. There were 605,509 people receiving continuing unemployment benefits that week, a 1.9-percent decrease from the week before.

Nationally, however, the number of first-time jobless claims grew slightly to just over 1.1 million last week, an increase of 135,000 over the week before that.

Redistricting app

Reformers say it’s time for Illinoisans to “advocate for themselves” when lawmakers redraw the state’s political boundaries in a few months.

That’s the message the Coalition for Honest and New Government Ethics, or CHANGE Illinois — a group that has long advocated for changes to the redistricting process — intends to deliver through an online application its helped develop.

Using Representable, residents can input information about their communities — geographic borders, historical information, cultural and ethnic members and economic factors — to draw more “actionable” maps for use by lawmakers during redistricting, said company co-founder Preet Iyer.

This latest attempt by CHANGE at reform comes after the failure of a proposed constitutional amendment that would have created an independent redistricting commission. The amendment did not get the requisite legislative support it needed before a May 3 deadline, after the Illinois General Assembly halted its session in March in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The state’s Constitution specifies lawmakers have until June 30, 2021, to create an agreed-upon redistricting plan. If they are unsuccessful, a bipartisan commission will be convened to finish the job.

Rental assistance extension

Pritzker announced Aug. 18, the Illinois Housing Development Authority, or IHDA, extended the deadline for Illinois renters to apply for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program until 12 p.m. Aug. 28.

According to a news release from the IHDA, the deadline was extended due to powerful storms that battered residents in northern Illinois recently.

For an application to be considered complete, landlords must also submit documents on behalf of the renter, which are due Aug. 30.

Tenants who are approved for emergency rental assistance will receive a one-time grant of $5,000, paid directly to their landlords. That grant covers rent payments missed beginning in March and prepayment of rent bills through December, or until the $5,000 is exhausted, whichever comes first. The grant will not have to be repaid.

A similar initiative, called the Emergency Mortgage Assistance program, is set to launch on Aug. 24 and will not be affected by the extension of rental assistance, according to IHDA’s release.

Applications for both rental and mortgage assistance can be filed online at https://era.ihda.org/.

Each program is receiving $150 million in federal CARES Act funding.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

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