Toni Preckwinkle was more prepared than most for the upheaval unleashed by the coronavirus – thanks in part to her habit of scouring the shelves of her neighborhood book store.
In late December or early January, perusing the stacks at Powell’s Books in Hyde Park, the Cook County Board president happened upon Pandemic 1918: Eyewitness Accounts from the Greatest Medical Holocaust in Modern History.
She bought the book on the deadly influenza pandemic to be ready, even though she had little idea of the “nightmare” ahead.
“We started hearing about the pandemic in China, of course, in December,” Preckwinkle said. “So it was on the remainder shelf at Powell’s, and I said, ‘Well, this is coming, so I should read this book.’”
And she soon sounded the alarm, weeks before the looming storm was on most residents’ radar.
She’d bring the sobering book to work, and call for meetings – even as some employees were “snickering” about the boss’s concern, her chief spokesman, Nick Shields, admitted.
Few are laughing now.
During a frank conversation with the Chicago Sun-Times on Thursday, Preckwinkle talked about the county’s response to the virus, as well as how it has impacted her personally — from checking in on her daughter, a nurse whose patients are immune-compromised, to watching episodes of “The Crown” and “The Letter for the King” as a break from a bleak reality.
About two-thirds of the employees in Preckwinkle’s office are working from home, thanks to the shelter-at-home demands sparked by the rapidly spreading coronavirus pandemic.
“Social distancing in effect” signs posted at the Cook County Board of Commissioners meeting room last month.
“Social distancing in effect” signs posted at the Cook County Board of Commissioners meeting room as Board President Toni Preckwinkle held a special meeting last month. Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file
But Preckwinkle and two other employees still come to her offices at the county’s main building at 118 N. Clark St.
Shields said a “handful” of employees have the virus though none, to his knowledge, have died from it.
Preckwinkle is holding meetings and conferences on-line as so many county residents are also now forced to do.
“We’ve been doing these Zoom things, which my staff is helping me do,” Preckwinkle said. “I don’t like it.”
When Shields interjected to set the record straight — saying that the county is actually using Microsoft Teams, not Zoom — Preckwinkle thanked him wryly for the correction.
The Hyde Park Democrat is navigating the crisis much like everyone else — of course with the considerably more demanding addition of her government duties.
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And like virtually everyone else, Preckwinkle has been personally affected by it.
A friend of hers lost an aunt, and two of the woman’s cousins were in the hospital. Thursday morning, Preckwinkle got a call that Archbishop Lucius Hall, founder and pastor of First Church of Love and Faith and a leader in gospel circles, had died. His South Side church lost six of its parishioners this week, Preckwinkle said.
“We will not get through this without knowing people who are sick and knowing people who have passed away,” Preckwinkle said.
There’s also her daughter, a nurse at a dialysis center who’s been going to work every day and yells at her “to be careful,” the board president said. Preckwinkle worries like any parent would, especially considering the health concerns of her daughter’s patients.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle along with Gov. J.B. Pritzker an other elected and health officials give their daily coronavirus update on March 10, 2020.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle along with Gov. J.B. Pritzker an other elected and health officials give their daily coronavirus update on March 10, 2020. Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file
As for not appearing regularly at Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s daily COVID-19 briefings, Preckwinkle said simply — and reiterated when pressed — “those are the governor’s press conferences.”
A spokeswoman for the governor said invites to Preckwinkle, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot, go out “probably at least one a week or every other week” and depend on “what we’re doing that’s statewide or city based” or “what message we’re sharing that day.”
And the frosty relationship between Preckwinkle and the woman who beat her in last year’s mayoral race has apparently been suspended like so many other things.
Preckwinkle said she spoke with the mayor in the last week about “some of the challenges the city faced around school closures.” The chiefs of staff for the two municipal leaders talk on a regular basis, the board president said.
The mayor drew the ire of many when she ordered the lakefront and public spaces closed – and spawned a social media barrage of memes depicting a scowling Lightfoot standing guard over everything from the Lakefront Trail to the Last Supper.
Preckwinkle has avoided all that by declining to shut down the county’s forest preserves, saying she hasn’t seen much crowding.
But like Lightfoot, Preckwinkle has held her own news conferences on a variety of coronavirus-related topics: making sure people complete their Census forms, providing small business relief, describing the state of the county’s healthcare system, among others.
Preckwinkle said she is focused on the care the county provides and on making sure there are as few people in the “petri dish,” or the Cook County Jail, as possible.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle holds a news conference
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle holds a news conference to talk about how the county will help businesses hit hard by coronavirus containment efforts last month. Brian Rich/Sun-Times file
The potential increase in uninsured patients needing intensive care during the pandemic is creating a “tremendous financial challenge” for the county by exacerbating one of Cook County Health’s growing problems: charity care, or health care the county provides but for which it’s not paid.
For the 2020 fiscal year, there was already a $600 million charity care cloud looming over the finances of the health system — and the county at large.
When asked if the health system’s finances could themselves be a COVID-19 casualty, Preckwinkle said “we hope not.”
“We will, as we have in the past, care for the majority of the uninsured,” Preckwinkle said.