Illinois' top health official says the state has been preparing a plan to vaccinate residents once a coronavirus vaccine is available but gave an impassioned plea once more to hold holiday celebrations virtually and to wear masks as she says health care workers are sounding the alarm and that the state is heading in the "wrong direction" with the pandemic.
Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike sat down for an interview with NBC 5's Zoraida Sambolin to discuss the ongoing pandemic, including recent news on vaccines, the effectiveness of contact tracing, the strain on the health care system, where the virus is spreading most and how the state is trying to get the pandemic under control.
With news from two pharmaceutical companies - Pfizer and Moderna - that their vaccines were more than 90% effective in late-stage trials, Ezike expressed optimism in the effort to inoculate the state.
Ezike said the Illinois Emergency Management Agency had contracted for 20 ultra cold storage freezers to position "in all parts of the state" for the potential receipt of the Pfizer vaccine, which has to be stored at extremely cold temperatures. Phase one of the state's rollout plan includes vaccinating health care workers first, she said.
"I think the projections we've received that maybe we'll get 400,000 of the Pfizer vaccine, maybe 300,000 of the Moderna, so that will just get us started," Ezike said. "But later on in 2021, that's when we hope to have a much more robust supply that we will be able to give throughout the state."
Ezike said after health care workers, the state plans to vaccinate high-risk individuals who either meet the age criteria or who have comorbid conditions, then other essential workers.
"So if you're a healthy person, not necessarily on the front lines, you will get a vaccine, but you will be at the back of the line," Ezike said, noting that when those people might be vaccinated depends on production of the vaccines, making the timeline difficult to predict.
But when asked when she thought residents might be able to go back to "normal" lives, Ezike demurred.
"It's better not to postulate," she said. "I wish I could. I think things will be better soon, sooner than we thought. These vaccines are helpful to get us there sooner."
But as cases, hospitalizations and the positivity rate in testing continue to rise across the state, Ezike said the failure lies in keeping transmission down - and pointed to specific instances where she saw a need for change.
"We look at the numbers daily, weekly, monthly, wave one to wave two, right now we see that the largest number of cases, if you divide them up by groups, the largest number of cases are in the 20 to 29 year olds," Ezike said. "But when you see the individuals that are dying, it's highest in the 80 and above, next highest 70 and above next highest 60 and above, right in order down the line. So we know that though the primary group that's getting infected is are the 20 somethings, it does spread from there and get to our more vulnerable citizens in the state."
What exactly are those contracting coronavirus most doing that needs to change?
"They're living," Ezike said. "They're living, they are gathering, you know, they're working, they're dining, everything that they're doing is an opportunity for spread."
"We know that there are some higher risk settings, settings that don't involve masking, settings that don't involve distancing. So private gatherings that don't involve distancing or masking, dining opportunities where you can't eat or drink, obviously, with masking. Any kind of event that predisposes to that the lack of masking and distancing has created an issue," she continued. "And so we really need to curtail on that."
"We see as a state, we're all headed in the wrong direction," Ezike said. "With more and more cases, more and more hospitalizations, more and more deaths, the hospitals are crying out saying that they are worried that they won't have a bed for everyone that wants to come in, whether it's COVID, or a flu, or a car accident or a heart attack, and that's the situation we just can't afford to have."
Ezike again called on Illinois residents to stay at home as much as possible and gather only virtually, even for the holidays. But if people must gather, she said there are ways to do so more safely: limit guests, try to separate people from different households at different tables, tell guests ahead of time that masks are required so they are prepared, try to hold gatherings outside and more.
With regards to the health care system, Ezike said the state is trying to avoid a situation like in North Dakota, where the governor issued an order allowing staff who test positive to continue caring for COVID-19 patients.
"That's the point we're not trying to get to," she said. "I mean, I'm already getting calls from hospitals, saying that many of their staff are on quarantine, many of their staff are actively infected. And so they are sitting them down, they are at home, isolating and or quarantining. But if we got to a point where every bed in the hospital was full, and there wasn't anyone to take care of them, what choice would we have? So we can't get to that option; we have to do things now to make sure that that eventuality does not occur."