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Gov. Pritzker On The Challenges Facing Illinois During COVID-19 Pandemic

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have called the governor of one of the states over which the president says he has absolute authority. J.B. Pritzker is the Democratic governor of Illinois, where Chicago is one of this country's hot spots for coronavirus. Governor, good morning.

J B PRITZKER: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Will you follow the president's instructions on when to reopen?

PRITZKER: Look - I think it's an advisory opinion by somebody, an elected official. But the truth of the matter is that, from the very beginning, this matter has been left to the governors to make decisions, and we've been relying upon the science and on the doctors and on the researchers and the epidemiologists, and they've advised us to put in place these stay-at-home orders. Illinois was the second state in the United States to put one in place.

And as a result of the work that we've done, we've seen a kind of leveling of our curve, which is a good sign, although I keep my fingers crossed every day as I look at the numbers.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

PRITZKER: But the reality is that the president does not have the authority to tell the states what to do in this regard. We put the executive orders in place. We're the ones who are responsible for the safety and health of the people of our states. And I think that governors that you've heard from over the last day have done a very good job of that. And so we're going to continue...

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about the order that you've put in place. As I understand it, there are stay-at-home orders in Illinois through April 30. Of course, when you talk to public health experts, they suggest that these kinds of orders will be needed considerably longer. But if I'm not mistaken, you said you will likely adjust your orders in some way on April 30. What kinds of adjustments are possible that early?

PRITZKER: Well, we've been making adjustments all along. You know, the definition of what essential workers are, essential businesses, is to some degree a matter of local concern. In other words, we started out with the homeland security's - department's list of essential businesses and workers. And then, you know, there's - obviously, Illinois is different than other states, and so we've added to what those definitions are. We'll continue to make adjustments like that.

But in reality, we're going to have to pay very close attention to keeping restrictions, some restrictions, in place, many of them - because the truth is that until we have testing, widespread testing, the ability to contact trace on a widespread basis and a treatment available - something that, really, the researchers are doing the work on...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

PRITZKER: ...And then PPE available to people who can't otherwise afford it, until you have those things in place, you really can't make substantial changes.

INSKEEP: So this will not be a big change on April 30, the kinds of changes you're contemplating. You're not going to be reopening restaurants or doing the kinds of things they're trying in Spain or Austria or reopening stores and that sort of thing.

PRITZKER: I'm going to be relying upon the science, on the epidemiologists. You know, I think that's been - that's stood us in good stead and helped to save a lot of lives.

INSKEEP: Governor, you mentioned testing. The federal government clearly does have some power over who gets tests, as you learned directly as I understand. There's a company - we should tell people - called Abbott Labs. They're in Illinois. They make this new high-speed test that's very much in demand. And as I understand it, you thought you had obtained a lot of them for the state of Illinois, and then what happened?

PRITZKER: Well, to be clear, Abbott Labs has been a very good player here. They've developed some terrific technology that will allow us to do widespread testing on a rapid basis. But the challenge for them is the federal government has stepped in, as they have in all other matters of supply chain, and essentially moved the machines around to other places across the nation. We've gotten some of them, so I'm glad of that.

But the truth is that the federal government has really been more of a hindrance than a help in most of the testing issues. And so here in Illinois, we've ended up just developing mostly our own testing capability. We've had to develop our own VTM, viral transport medium, all the pieces of the supply chain and buy more machines because the federal government hasn't been much help at all.

INSKEEP: You don't have all the tests you need, do you?

PRITZKER: We do not. We've been working very hard to raise up the number of tests that we do every day. We started out about 200 at the very beginning. We got very little from the federal government. We're now up to almost 8,000 a day. We need to get past 10,000. And frankly, we're going to need a lot more than that if we're going to start to think about, you know, how we reopen the economy.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Governor, I want to ask about something else. Chicago has a large African American population, and so it's one of the places where this disease has clearly very disproportionately hit African Americans. What do you mean to do about that?

PRITZKER: Well, this is an enormously important issue. And as it has come to light, you know, it's been clear that coronavirus, of course, doesn't discriminate based upon race, but what it does do is take advantage of underlying comorbidities, underlying conditions.

And, you know, after decades, indeed centuries, of underinvestment, disinvestment from health care in black communities, there are widespread - you know, there's hypertension, there's diabetes, there's heart disease that plagues the black community. And COVID-19 takes advantage of that, and the result is we've had a much higher number of deaths among the African American community than any other.

So what we're doing is we're putting testing into the neighborhoods all across the state of Illinois to make sure that, in black neighborhoods, people are able to get testing. We're also doubling down on our messaging to make sure that people truly are staying indoors because the best way to avoid COVID-19 is stay at home...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

PRITZKER: ...And not get...

INSKEEP: Well, then there's a related issue here, though, because, of course, a very large proportion of people in prison are people of color. And as I'm sure you know very well, there was a lawsuit that pressed you to release more Illinois prison inmates than you have, for their own safety. We should note that your administration got the case dismissed in federal court, but shouldn't you just be doing that?

PRITZKER: Actually, we have been doing that, and I think that's one of the reasons why the case was dismissed. I've been working - you know, every other day, I go through a list of people that - whose sentences I could commute. We have had our director of the Department of Corrections reviewing cases. He has the ability, also, to release people. And so we've done - we've released hundreds - in fact, from February 1 to now, it's been more than 2,000 people that have been released.

INSKEEP: You've done enough or you're going to do more?

PRITZKER: Well, we're continuing to do it. No, it's not enough. We're going to continue. You know, it's difficult. As you get past the nonviolent crimes, as you get past, you know, narcotics convictions and so on, you know, and you start to look at people that have been in prison for a long time for a crime they may have committed when they were maybe in their teens, you know, those crimes are pretty terrible crimes.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

PRITZKER: So these are difficult cases. But I'm reviewing them expeditiously. And of course, we're doing everything we can within the prisons to separate populations of people who may have COVID-19 at a very low level, low acuity...

INSKEEP: Right.

PRITZKER: ...From people who don't have it, and then we're - hospitalize those who do have it.

INSKEEP: Governor, thanks so much. Really appreciate the time.

PRITZKER: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: J.B. Pritzker is the Democratic governor of the state of Illinois. He joined us from home in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.