The light at the end of the COVID-19 pandemic tunnel is getting brighter, according to state officials.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Thursday that increases in vaccine supplies will allow everyone age 16 and older to qualify for vaccination appointments starting April 12, effectively abandoning the phases limiting access.
He said special efforts will be made before April 12 to vaccinate the most vulnerable people.
Illinois Department of Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike, who early on characterized the pandemic response as a 26-mile marathon, said the race could be over soon.
“We have come so far,” she said during a news conference. “We’re in the 25th mile of this marathon. The finish line is in sight.”
Pritzker also said the move to Phase 5 of the state’s pandemic recovery plan is within reach, but it will be preceded by a new “bridge” phase to transition from Phase 4. Phase 5 is essentially a return to pre-pandemic business and social openness.
The bridge phase will begin as soon as 70% of people age 65 and older have received at least one vaccine dose. Two of the three vaccines currently being administered in Illinois require two doses.
Currently, about 58% of that group have received at least one dose, Pritzker said.
After entering the bridge phase, the state will monitor infection, hospitalization and mortality rates for 28 days. If there is no sign of virus resurgence, and when at least 50% of residents age 16 and over have received at least one dose, the state will move into Phase 5.
Pritzker also sounded a note of caution.
“Unfortunately, COVID-19 has not gone away,” he said. “People are still passing away from it. It’s time to cautiously move toward normalcy, but there’s more to a strong economy than removing restrictions. People have to feel safe, and they have to be safe.”
He said even reaching vaccination goals will not eliminate the risk to people who have not been vaccinated, so the state’s mask mandate will continue. He said the mandate will be lifted only when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends it.
“This is how we move to normalcy,” he said, urging residents to continue following personal precautions such as mask wearing, hand washing and maintaining physical distance even after being vaccinated. “We won’t be foolish throwing away our best weapon” against the virus.
Pritzker began the news conference by citing the ramping up of vaccine supplies. He noted that in December, when the first shipments started to arrive, the state was getting about 109,000 doses per week. Now, it is receiving more than 800,000 doses per week and officials expect that number to top 1 million in April.
Ezike noted that while vaccine supplies are ramping up, infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths have dropped dramatically since the peak of the winter surge.
“The light that we can see at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter and brighter,” Pritzker said. “I’m more optimistic than I have been at any time in the last year.”