COVID-19 in Sangamon County: The first year

Graphic atop the Sangamon County Health Department’s COVID-19 web page, 2023

Sangamon County recorded its first COVID-19 death on March 19, 2020. A 71-year-old woman travelling from Florida to Springfield passed away from virus complications at Memorial Medical Center.

The death occurred during a period of national uncertainty about the COVID-19 virus and how to protect oneself from it. The death also led to Sangamon County being included on a growing list of areas hit by what was then a seemingly uncontrollable pandemic.

In response to COVID-19 deaths, Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, stated: “We ask everyone to, please, stay home as much as possible so we can reduce the number of people who are infected and potentially suffer serious illness, including death.” At the time, Illinois officials said the state had tallied 93 virus cases in 13 counties, including some in Central Illinois. By late March, the caseload jumped to 422 statewide, and numbers rapidly increased after that.

Early in the pandemic, the University of Illinois Springfield extended its spring break through March 23 to allow students and faculty time to prepare for online learning, a move that eventually became the norm for school instruction locally and nationally. Officials at Lincoln Library, Springfield’s city library, originally announced plans to remain open, but the library closed completely as virus cases mounted.

The Governor’s Mansion stopped tours and events “until further notice” due to the uncertainty of exactly how the virus spread and its contagion rate. With closure following closure, Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder asked residents to be cautious but to “not panic”.

On St. Patrick’s Day 2020, lockdowns were either considered or implemented in cities across the U.S. Langfelder at first proclaimed Springfield’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade would be held on schedule. That decision was later reversed, but St. Patrick’s Day revelers still celebrated in bars and restaurants – at the time, no government body had issued orders requiring businesses to close to the public.

In mid-March, Gov. Jay Pritzker invoked emergency powers to order the closure of public and private schools in Illinois. Later that week, another person was hospitalized at Memorial Medical Center for virus treatment. The Springfield Park District suspended group programming classes and events “until further notice.”

Due to virus risk, 16 states cancelled their 2020 primary elections. Illinois did not. However, shortly before the primary, Pritzker, following national guidelines, ordered the cancellation of any gathering of 50 or more people. The primary proceeded on March 17, although with nervous voter lines and anxiety about turnout. Turnout ultimately was about 28 percent statewide.

By early April, Illinois had reported 10,000 COVID-19 cases.

The General Assembly prepared to return to session in Springfield the day after the primary, but in an unprecedented move, it suspended the session through May 20. When the legislature did meet, it convened a four-day session to pass a state budget, coronavirus legislation, and other bills. The House assembled inside the Bank of Springfield Center, Springfield’s convention center, to allow for social distancing, while the Senate continued to meet in the Statehouse.

As the year progressed and COVID-19 cases mounted, the autumn 2020 session of the General Assembly was cancelled.

The 2020 Illinois State Fair, scheduled in August, also was cancelled, for the first time since World War II. Also in August, Langfelder signed an emergency order requiring bar and restaurant patrons in Springfield to wear masks when not seated. (Locally and elsewhere, masking regulations varied as federal health guidance changed and COVID-19 numbers rose and fell.)

In November, Sangamon County and Springfield officials, differing from Pritzker’s directive to keep dining establishments closed, developed a plan to allow bars and restaurants to continue indoor service. But the COVID-19 virus wasn’t ready to let go.

According to NPR Illinois:

(Sangamon County officials) set the threshold at an average positivity rate above 12 percent for the county for three straight days, which would trigger closure of indoor service. The rolling average reached 14.4 percent Saturday (Nov. 7) for the county. … It was 13.4 percent Friday (Nov. 6) and 12.5 percent the day before that.

As a result, starting Nov. 13, Sangamon County’s bars and restaurants were forbidden to serve patrons indoors. Closures and other restrictions were tied to the surge in virus positivity – the county health department reported a record-breaking 343 cases in November alone.

“It’s going to be the capacity at our hospitals,” Langfelder said. “That’s really the danger.” St. John’s Hospital reported a record 158 hospitalized victims of COVID-19 on Nov. 13, a record that eventually would be overshadowed by another peak – 218 cases – on Dec. 31, 2021.

By November 2020, the state confirmed 10,000 deaths from COVID-19.

Two rapidly developed vaccines – usually identified by their makers’ names, Pfizer and Moderna – began to be available in late 2020. The first doses were given out Dec. 16 in Sangamon County. Healthcare professionals, congregate care staff and residents and people 85 and older were first in line for the vaccine.

In March 2021, a year after the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, officials reported that more than 200 Sangamon County residents had died of COVID-19 in 2020. That amounted to about 10 percent of deaths from all causes during the year. Statewide, Pritzker said, December 2020 was “the deadliest month on record” for COVID-19.

Note: On Jan., 31, 2023, Pritzker announced that Illinois’s COVID-19 disaster declaration would expire on May 11, more than three years after the pandemic began. As of Feb. 17, 2023, Illinois had reported more than four million cases of the disease and 36,500 deaths. Public health workers had administered more than 26 million doses of vaccine.

Hat tip: William Cellini Jr.

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