CAPITOL RECAP: COVID surge stresses hospitals, keeps lawmakers from Capitol

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By CAPITOL NEWS ILLINOIS

SPRINGFIELD – A continuing sharp spike in COVID-19 cases being driven by the omicron variant has pushed the state’s hospital capacity to its limits and is prompting the state to bring in additional health care workers from other states and countries.

Gov. JB Pritzker said Wednesday, Jan. 12, that more than 2,000 additional health care workers have been deployed throughout the state, including 919 in hospitals hit hard by the surge, with another 552 scheduled to arrive within the next several days.

“This current wave of COVID is causing more people to get sick than ever before in the pandemic,” Pritzker said. “And the vast majority of the serious illnesses and deaths are among the unvaccinated.”

As of Wednesday, the Illinois Department of Public Health was reporting 7,219 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state, down slightly from the record 7,353 who were hospitalized on Tuesday. Another 271 people in the state had died of the disease just since Monday.

“We have never had this many COVID patients in the hospital at any point in the pandemic. Not in spring of 2020; not in the winter of 2020,” IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said, noting that the previous pandemic record was 6,175, set in November 2020.

Over the past seven days, more than 227,000 new cases have been confirmed in Illinois out of 1.9 million tests performed, for a seven-day case positivity rate of 12 percent.

“But as difficult as this moment is, there will be an end to it,” Pritzker said. “We have all the necessary tools for prevention, and we are nearer than ever to having everything we need to detect and treat the disease to keep even the most vulnerable people alive. I can't say enough about how extraordinary our hospitals and our health care heroes have been throughout this pandemic.”

Pritzker said the state was taking several actions to bolster its health care workforce, such as allowing out-of-state health care providers to continue practicing in Illinois with expanded permissions to care for all patients, not just COVID-19 patients.

In addition, doctors trained in other countries have been given permission to provide assistance to licensed physicians in Illinois. And out-of-state providers, including physicians, nurses and mental health providers, are being allowed to provide telehealth services to patients in Illinois if they have a pre-existing provider-patient relationship.

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DIVERSITY IN CLEAN ENERGY PROJECTS: Aiming to increase diversity in wind and solar jobs, a proposed measure in the Illinois General Assembly would require more transparent reporting on the level of participation of minority-owned businesses in clean energy jobs. 

Rep. William Davis, D-Hazel Crest, advanced House Bill 4217 through the House Energy and Environment Committee on Tuesday, Jan. 19. The measure aims to increase “diverse participation in projects that could include African-Americans, Latinx, and women-owned firms.”

In the bill, energy suppliers who generate more than 500 kilowatt hours of electricity with at least 100,000 customers and companies that develop, install, or maintain a renewable energy project with annual revenues over $15 million would be required to submit annual reports on procurement goals and spending on contracts with female-owned, minority-owned, veteran-owned companies and small businesses.

Annual reports would need to outline a buying plan for specific goods and services the company plans to procure in the next six to 18 months, include any procurement codes used by the company. It’s an effort to assist entrepreneurs and diverse companies in understanding upcoming opportunities with the company submitting the buying plan, according to the bill.

“Part of our effort, as we have done in many other sectors, is to start by trying to ask those individuals that are doing it, to supply reports, to fill out reports and show us what they are doing relative to diversity, and not only what their numbers look like but also, in some cases, the plan to increase that diversity over time,” Davis said.

Businesses that make less than $15 million a year would possibly be exempt from filling out diversity reports but would still have the opportunity to do so if they desired. 

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EDUCATOR SHORTAGES: School officials across Illinois say a shortage of teachers and substitutes is forcing them to cancel course offerings, move them online or fill open positions with people who are not fully qualified.

Those are the findings of the latest survey by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools, the fifth such survey the organization has conducted in as many years.

“Our schools need help, now more than ever,” said Mark Klaisner, IARSS president. “For five years of our study, we have shown how schools are struggling to find qualified teachers and are under tremendous stress to provide the best education possible while understaffed and overwhelmed. COVID-19 has only made those challenges worse.”

The survey included responses from 663 of the state’s 852 school districts, representing 78 percent of public schools in Illinois. It was conducted in the fall of 2021 by Goshen Education Consulting, based in Edwardsville.

Overall, 88 percent of the districts responding said they had a shortage of full-time teachers, while 96 percent said they had a shortage of substitute teachers. Districts responding reported a total of 412 classes were canceled and 385 were converted to online instruction because of teacher shortage issues.

More than 2,000 positions are either not filled or filled by someone not qualified to teach there, more than double the number reported from last year. That includes the increased use of paraprofessionals – people who are not fully licensed as teachers but who are credentialed to work under the direction of a licensed teacher.

The shortage is most acute in the east-central and west-central regions where more than 90 percent of the districts responding said they had a teacher shortage problem. But even in the northeast region where the shortage appeared to be least significant, 79 percent of districts reported a teacher shortage, while overall 77 percent of districts said the shortage is getting worse.

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REPUBLICAN AMENDMENTS: Republicans in the Illinois Senate have again introduced a package of proposed constitutional amendments that they argue would give voters more of a direct say in the legislative process.

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“We're reintroducing these constitutional amendments in order to really put the people back in charge again,” Senate GOP Leader Dan McConchie, of Hawthorn Woods, said during a virtual news conference Tuesday, Jan. 18.

The package includes a renewed call for an independent redistricting commission. Other amendments would give voters greater power to amend the Illinois Constitution, as well as the power to repeal legislation and the power to recall elected officials at all levels of government.

Specifically, Senate Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 13 would remove the current requirement that each Senate district be divided into two House districts and would incorporate provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 into the constitution while requiring that districts be compact and contiguous.

It would also establish a 17-member Independent Redistricting Commission to redraw legislative and congressional district lines starting in 2023. The commission members would be drawn from each of the state’s 17 congressional districts and would be made up of seven Democrats, seven Republicans and three unaffiliated voters.

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BUDGET NEGOTIATING TEAM: Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch announced a new House budget negotiation team Tuesday, Jan. 18, led by House Majority Leader and chief budgeteer Greg Harris, D-Chicago.

Former Speaker Michael Madigan appointed Harris to be the chief budgeteer during the Rauner administration. Harris, the second-ranking Democrat in the House, announced in November that he would not seek re-election after the completion of his current term this year. Harris said he will share his knowledge and experience of the budget process with the team to “pass the mantle.”

“We need to continue to keep moving forward,” Harris said in an interview. “Illinois just had its first bond rating increase in a quarter of a century. We need to continue to keep that going strong.”

Harris will lead the group rounded out with Reps. Will Davis, D-Homewood; Elizabeth Hernandez, D-Cicero; Mike Zalewski, D-Riverside; and Robyn Gabel, D-Evanston, during this legislative session.

“We have made great progress putting Illinois on the path toward financial stability,” Welch said in a statement. “With the stewardship of Leader Harris and this incredibly diverse group of state representatives, I am confident we will have a fiscally responsible budget that prioritizes the needs of hardworking Illinoisans.”

The budget negotiation team will meet with caucuses and then work with the Gov. JB Pritzker’s office to determine priorities for the next fiscal year.

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REPUBLICANS CALL FOR DCFS HEARINGS: Three Republican state House members called for hearings into the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services on Thursday, Jan. 13, out of concerns for workers’ safety, improper placements of state wards and the recent death of North Chicago boy.

Reps. Steven Reick, R-Woodstock, Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, and Tom Weber, R-Lake Villa, held a news conference Thursday to demand that DCFS Director Marc D. Smith appear and answer questions. They called on their Democratic colleagues and Gov. JB Pritzker to join their calls for hearings.

“For the past three years, members of the House and Senate of both parties have tried to peel the onion that is DCFS to find the root causes of their failures,” Reick said. “And the only conclusion that we could draw is that the agency is irretrievably broken and that no amount of money will solve its systematic failures.”

DCFS has come under fire in recent weeks for three incidents: the death of a caseworker, the death of a child in a family where abuse allegations were reported, and a contempt citation issued against Director Smith for failing to move children to appropriate placements.

Child protection investigator Deidre Silas worked for the department for six months when she was sent alone to a house in Thayer on Jan. 4 to check on the welfare of six children. Silas was found dead by Sangamon County Sheriff’s deputies. She had been bludgeoned and stabbed. Benjamin Reed, 32, who lived at the home, was later charged with Silas’ murder. She was the mother of two children.

In a separate incident, 6-year-old Damari Perry was found dead in an abandoned building in Gary, Indiana. Damari was taken into the state’s care in 2015, but was returned to his mother’s care, along with his siblings, two years later. Two subsequent abuse allegations were received by DCFS, including an allegation that the mother wrote a note threatening harm to Damari.

On Dec. 29, prosecutors said Damari was punished with a shower in cold water. He vomited, went unresponsive and later died. Jannie Perry, the boy’s mother, and two siblings face charges in connection with his death.

“It should come as no surprise that members of the GOP are once again using our state’s most vulnerable as pawns in their political games,” Pritzker spokesperson Jordan Abudayyeh said. “This is the same party that stood behind (former Gov.) Bruce Rauner as he decimated social services and recklessly cut 500 beds for youth in care without creating alternative placements. They repeatedly voted against increased funding for DCFS, resulting in dangerously low staffing levels. As the administration has repeatedly made clear, these reckless decisions destroyed lives quickly, but it will take years to undo that damage.”

DCFS has a $1 billion budget, but money to hire more caseworkers isn’t the solution, Weber said.

“Failed leadership cannot be fixed by more money or more employees. When you see a pattern of children being taken away from then returned to their mother and years later that child is murdered, these are patterns that aren’t going to be fixed by more money. This is something that can only be address by an investigation of the failed policies of DCFS and its leadership,” the state representative said.

 

 

 

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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