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Pritzker Encourages Use of Masks In Public, Announces Field Hospital In Springfield


With concerns that the new coronavirus is being spread by asymptomatic people, Gov. J.B. Pritzker is advising Illinois residents to wear masks while out in public.

“The doctors all agree that this virus can be spread through droplets when you sneeze or cough," Pritzker said at his daily briefing Friday. “Wearing a mask in public is a way to do what’s right for everyone around you.”

The federal government is weighing whether to make a similar recommendation.

Public health officials said specialized N-95 masks should be saved for medical personnel, and that homemade cloth masks would provide protection for the average resident.

Pritzker said it doesn’t matter if the mask is medical or homemade, but it is in everyone’s best interest to cover their mouths and noses while in public. Masks are recommended, but not mandatory.

Meanwhile, Pritzker announced that the former Vibra Hospital in Springfield will be the fifth field hospital set up to treat patients sick with COVID-19 and the first in central Illinois.

These hospitals will treat patients who have tested positive for the disease but do not need to be in intensive care to ease the strain on other hospitals, Pritzker said.

“It very well might be that this virus overwhelms our existing hospital capacity in Illinois. As it has done in Italy and other countries around the world, and as it’s beginning to do in our country too,” the governor said.

The Illinois Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Illinois National Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are working to build and organize the additional facilities.

The move comes as Illinois added another 1,209 confirmed cases and 53 deaths. As of Friday, there are 8,904 confirmed cases, including 210 deaths.

In Sangamon County, 30 people have tested positive and two have died. The number of cases rose by seven Friday. 

Former Vibra Hospital

The Vibra Hospital was a 50-bed facility on North Walnut that closed in 2019.

The former hospital is a “turn-key solution” and will need minimal updates, said Rebecca Clark, a spokesperson for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency in an emailed statement.

In response to the question of if emergency officials expect Springfield to be the location of the next big surge in patients, Clark said selection of the site is not an indication of an anticipated surge in cases.

“We are focused on meeting the need in communities across the state,” she said.

The state of Illinois has acquired the property using the governor’s powers under his emergency declaration, according to Clark, but the price has not been determined. It will be set by mutual agreement or “through the courts.” The timeline and cost of the buildout have not been determined.

As for staffing, Clark said it will be a three-phased approach: hiring from associations around the country, then from the pool of workers signed up for IllinoisHelps – the state’s volunteer registry of medical professionals, and working with the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation to “cut the red tape that will make it easier for out-of-state doctors to practice in Illinois.”

Mayor Jim Langfelder made a bid for the city to buy the building last month and brought an ordinance before the city council to purchase it for $2 million. At the time, he said it could be a part of the city and state’s COVID-19 response. City council members tabled the measure, expressing skepticism about the deal.

Chicago Field Hospitals

The four other locations are in Chicago and its suburbs, including McCormick Place - the convention center in Chicago.

Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced they have completed the first phase of changing McCormick Place into the new Alternate Care Facility for COVID-19 patients with mild to moderate symptoms.

The facility is expected to begin treating patients with mild symptoms as early as next week.

Last week, McCormick Place stood as an empty convention hall. In the five days, construction crews have added 500 beds, 14 nursing stations, and support rooms for medical supply storage, pharmacy and housekeeping services.

The governor said medical personnel, along with nearly 140 contracted individuals are prepared to staff and care for patients. The site is expected to bring an additional 3,000 beds by the end of April.

“A hospital bed is just a bed until it has the staff and equipment to turn it into a place to treat COVID-19,” said the governor.

Former Advocate Healthcare CEO, Dr. Nick Turkal will lead the facility as executive director. He will be joined by Martin Judd as chief operating officer, and Dr. Paul Merrick, who will serve as clinical advisor.

Turkal doesn’t want residents to be confused about the purpose of the new facility.

“This is not a hospital, it’s an alternative care facility that will relieve some strain from our hospital partners,” said Turkal. “We will only be accepting patients that are already COVID-19 positive.”

The state is also working on three additional facilities to prepare for more hospitalizations. The former Advocate Sherman Hospital Campus in Elgin, the Metro South Health Center in Blue Island and Westlake Hospital in Melrose Park will all be used to house and treat COVID-19 patients.

“I never want to get to a place where our family and friends don’t have a place to heal or our hospitals don’t have the capacity to give them the best chance possible to beat COVID-19,” Pritzker said.

Copyright 2021 NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS. To see more, visit NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS.

Olivia Mitchell is a graduate Public Affairs Reporting intern for the spring 2020 legislative session.
Mary is a reporter at NPR Illinois and graduated from the Public Affairs Reporting program atUISand received her BA in International Studies from American University. Previously Mary worked as a planning consultant and reported for the State Journal-Register where she covered city government.