Three years ago today – January 24, 2020 – Illinois confirmed its first case of COVID-19. Since then, Illinois has recorded 4 million cases and 36,000 deaths – losses that have devastated families and communities in every region of our state.
The numbers left us numb. We started excluding COVID-19 from our lives. But the threat remains. COVID-19 claimed the lives of more than 200 Illinois in December, more deaths than from Ebola worldwide last year. Many of these deaths could have been avoided.
It’s time to remember that in 2023 we have powerful tools that we didn’t have in 2020. And we have something even more powerful: knowledge and experience. We now know what can protect us: a vaccine, a timely test, a pill, a mask, a portable air filter, an open window, or simply staying home when sick.
We are grateful to be in a better place. The deaths and the strain on our healthcare system have nothing to do with the depths of the pandemic when Illinois recorded hundreds of deaths and thousands of hospital admissions each week. But, as new variants of COVID-19 emerge and other respiratory illnesses circulate, we must remain vigilant to preserve hospital capacity and protect our most vulnerable.
As we move forward, we need to understand where we are and how to maintain a health care system that protects us from the challenges ahead – those we can anticipate and those we cannot.
What we learned
- Illinois is a state full of heroes. We begin with the bravery of our state’s frontline health and public health workers who risked their lives to protect us. And the pandemic scientists who raced to understand the new virus and the steps needed to protect us, and created the life-saving tests, vaccines and treatments that helped limit the effects of this deadly disease.
The most unsung heroes were the essential workers who didn’t have the luxury of working from home. They kept our grocery stores open, cooked our food, drove our buses, made deliveries, and educated our children. Those in community and social service positions had the highest death rate from COVID-19, followed by transport workers.
Society owes these heroes a debt, many of whom suffered illness and death, that it may never be able to repay.
- Health inequalities must be corrected. The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the disparities and fragmentation that have existed for too long in our healthcare system. The racial, socioeconomic, and geographic disparities we saw early in the pandemic revealed a health care system that was not equitable for everyone.
Our scientific discoveries have not guaranteed equitable access or distribution. It took the leadership of Governor JB Pritzker and the sustained efforts of local, city, county and state leaders to equitably roll out vaccines and treatments.
In May 2021, more than 10 million doses of vaccines were given to Illinoisans free of charge through a massive campaign involving local health departments and community groups in every corner of the state.
- Misinformation affects health. Misinformation has eroded trust in the people and systems that protect our health. Dangerous misinformation about vaccines and unverified medical treatments have spread through social and even traditional media.
We have learned that fighting misinformation and building trust takes constant effort. Illinois took an important step in this direction when we became the first state in the nation to require high schools to teach media literacy.
The path to follow
We already have examples of how lessons learned from the pandemic have strengthened our public health system.
We have used these lessons to launch successful responses to mpox (formerly monkeypox) and Ebola. Within weeks, the public health system mobilized to distribute vaccines and share accurate information. In doing so, we leveraged relationships and communication channels developed for the pandemic.
For Ebola, federal, state and local public health authorities established protocols to closely monitor travelers from Uganda, again relying on platforms developed for COVID-19.
Looking ahead, our mission to rebuild the future of public health has only just begun. We need a health system mobilized around reducing health inequalities – not only with respiratory diseases, but also chronic diseases and mental and behavioral disorders.
We must continue to prioritize a public health system that works best behind the scenes, investing in people, information and infrastructure to protect and promote your health.
And we must consistently earn your trust — by countering misinformation with accurate data and sharing the incredible work of healthcare heroes across Illinois.
The future for Illinois looks bright. Let’s meet this moment together and use these lessons and those we continue to learn to make every community in Illinois as healthy as possible.
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