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State health officials have been trying to answer questions about how they use COVID-19-related data to determine if Will and Kankakee counties require additional restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Will County elected officials and business leaders have aired their concerns and reached out to the Illinois Department of Public Health with specific questions since the region saw new restrictions a little more than two weeks ago.
Gov. JB Pritzker and the IDPH announced the additional restrictions because the test positivity rate for Will and Kankakee counties hit a rolling average of 8% for three days last month. The IDPH said it would reevaluate the region’s average test positivity rate after 14 days and this week confirmed the mitigation measures would remain in place.
Eleven chambers of commerce from the region recently wrote a letter to Pritzker with questions about why the additional restrictions included a ban on indoor service at bars and restaurants. Mike Paone, the Joliet Area Chamber of Commerce vice president for government affairs, also said they’d asked the IDPH for clarification on how the region’s COVID-19 test positivity rate was calculated.
Specifically, Paone questioned why the IDPH uses the proportion of total positive COVID-19 tests, which he said could include individuals who have been repeatedly tested.
In a letter responding to the chamber, IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said that while using this metric does account for repeated testing and will be higher than other metrics, it “better represents how widely the virus is being transmitted within a given area.”
A related issue came up Thursday at the Will County Board Executive Committee meeting when Will County Health Department Executive Director Sue Olenek said she had recently found out that the raw data the IDPH uses to calculate the positivity rate is not available online. So if someone were to use the number of COVID-19 cases reported, which does not account for repeated tests, to calculate the region’s positivity rate, it would not match the rate the IDPH reports because it includes different numbers.
Olenek said during the meeting she “pressed” the IDPH to report the raw data because her department was receiving several inquiries about how the positivity rate is calculated.
Paone said he found the explanation to be sufficient but also criticized the IDPH for not being totally transparent about which numbers it uses. While Paone said the IDPH did give the Chamber the raw test data for the region, he decried that it “took all of this digging to get these answers.”
“How hard is it to be transparent up front?” he said.
Paone and others also have asked about how college students from Will County attending a school elsewhere are counted. Will County Board Minority Leader Mike Fricilone, R-Homer Glen, brought up the issue during Thursday’s meeting with Olenek.
She said the IDPH confirmed that if a student living elsewhere for college tests positive, their case would be counted in the county where the school is, not for Will County.
Despite the explanations, many of the local officials have continued to express frustration and at times outright skepticism about how the state is using public health data to make decisions. Fricilone argued the restrictions on Will and Kankakee counties are hurting local businesses, and the apparent lack of clarity is frustrating residents.
“I think all the numbers are made up,” Fricilone said during Thursday’s meeting. “I just don’t get it anymore.”