By REBECCA ANZEL, Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD — Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration announced new initiatives Saturday to extend telehealth services and mental health support throughout the state to support people who are coping, either physically or mentally, with the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19.
The state’s confirmed case and death counts continue to rise, the governor said, and families are experiencing “circumstances that may cause you to feel despair.”
Adults are either working from home or out of a job. School children are out of classes, learning online. And if loved ones are battling COVID-19 at home or in a hospital, quarantine protocols dictate they cannot be interacted with.
The Illinois Department of Public Health said 81 Illinoisans died over a 24-hour period, in Champaign, Cook, DuPage, Jackson, Kankakee, Lake, McHenry, St. Clair, Will and Winnebago counties. In all, 677 fatalities are linked to the novel coronavirus.
Additionally, department Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said there are 1,293 more confirmed cases, bringing the state’s total to 19,180 COVID-19 positive tests in 86 counties.
“We are living in a deeply unprecedented moment and holding the emotional ramifications of that inside will be harder on you,” Pritzker said. “It’s OK to feel, and please know that you don’t have to feel it all alone.”
The state Department of Human Services began an emotional support resource for those feeling COVID-19-related stresses. It is free of charge and anonymous. Those interested can access it by texting “TALK” to 552020 or “HABLAR” for Spanish-language services.
Once a message is sent, a counselor from one of 62 community mental health centers will call and listen.
“We recognize that the mental well-being of Illinois is strained as a result of the pandemic,” Kia Coleman, Department of Human Services’ assistant secretary, said. “… We would like Illinois Call for Calm to be another resource to address these fears and concerns.”
Illinoisans may also send a message to that number with other key words, including “UNEMPLOYMENT,” FOOD” or “SHELTER” to receive helpful information.
Pritzker additionally announced a telehealth program for those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, but who do not need emergency or other in-person care. It is designed to allow residents to recover at home, thereby easing the burden on the state’s hospitals.
Those who call will be connected with a health care worker who establishes “daily virtual visits” and arranges for a wellness kit, including a thermometer, blood pressure cuff and alcohol wipes, to be sent to their home.
“This program serves to reduce barriers to physical health and mental health services in all communities and income levels, especially underserved communities and those most at risk during this pandemic,” the governor said.
Southern Illinois University’s School of Medicine is serving those in southern and central Illinois — throughout Carbondale, the Metro East St. Louis, Quincy, Decatur and Springfield, Pritzker said. The phone number to reach this service, 833-673-5669, will be available Monday.
OSF Health Care is serving northern central Illinois communities such as Alton, Peoria, Champaign-Urbana, Monmouth, Ottawa, Bloomington and Pontiac. That hotline, 217-545-5100, became operable Saturday.
A similar program for northern Illinoisans will launch this week, Pritzker said.
● The governor addressed what children and adolescents are “seeing and hearing and feeling” about the effects of COVID-19 by hosting a virtual town hall meeting Saturday afternoon. It will be available to watch later, on Facebook.
In a message to the state’s youth, Pritzker added the Easter bunny is essential personnel, and therefore will be working Sunday.
● State officials consider extending the stay-at-home order daily, the governor said, but no firm decision has been made. The current order extends through April 30.
In a message to golf courses and other facilities allowing Illinoisans to congregate, Pritzker added “this is not a time to loosen the standards that you’ve set under this COVID-19 crisis.”
“We are just beginning to bend the curve here,” he said. “This is a good sign, but this is not an indication that we should be letting up on those standards.”
It is impossible to know what circumstances will lead to the stay-at-home order and other restrictions being lifted, Pritzker added. That depends on health officials widely testing Illinoisans, their ability to trace how the virus is spreading and the development of a COVID-19 treatment.
“I think we should all keep our hopes up that those things collectively, that we’ll be able to make significant progress over the coming weeks,” Pritzker said.