City of Evanston Health & Human Services Director Ike Ogbo at the March 2 Human Services Committee meeting. RoundTable photo

Evanston officials have rated the risk of the coronavirus to residents as low at this juncture, with no local cases reported thus far. But if there is a wide expansion of the virus, “it will disrupt the schools, lead to “cancellation of gatherings,” and has the potential “to overwhelm our public health systems and our hospitals,” said Health & Human Services Director Ike Ogbo.

In a presentation to the City Council’s Health & Human Services Committee March 2, Mr. Ogbo said the Department has “done a number of things to prepare ourselves” should the virus expand. The City is working closely with the hospitals and Northwestern University, he said.

“We have talked with some of the [caring for the] homeless institutions here about what their plans look like,” he said. 

“We are going to have a meeting with our Medical Reserve Corps (MRC). These are professionals, who we have to activate in case of a public health emergency to discuss planning strategies and other activities.”  In addition, Mr. Ogbo said, “we are determining whether individuals fit what we call the U.I. – these are people under investigation, who experience some type of symptoms that we have to monitor.”

Along those lines, “just this morning, we had a meeting with the directors of various health departments in the region: Skokie, Will County, DuPage, Lake.  So we are working on this,” he told aldermen. “And I want to assure everyone that we’re doing everything within our power to strategize and plan in the event that we ever have a coronavirus case in Evanston.”

“But, currently we do not have a case,” he said.

In discussion, Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, asked about the information the City is providing on its website and whether it includes travel tips to residents with Spring Break coming up. “If we can advise families on what countries maybe to avoid and how to protect themselves as they are traveling,” she suggested, as well as whether or not to wear a mask.

That information is available on the City’s website at site also has links to the Center for Disease Control and Illinois Department of Public Health, Mr. Ogbo said. “And in regards to the masks, the CDC’s recommendation is for people who are experiencing symptoms to wear the masks –  not people who are really well,” Mr. Ogbo said.

Mayor Stephen Hagerty, sitting in for the presentation, said he was pleased the City had reached out to Northwestern, the hospitals and the schools.

He also asked if officials were in touch with Rotary, which has its international headquarters downtown. Mr. Ogbo said the City’s newly formed Coronavirus Response Team has identified a number of agencies and entities to reach out to, including Rotary. The City’s homeless community and long-term care facilities are others.

Mayor Hagerty also asked the Health & Human Services director for advice on three things community members can do for greater protection during the crisis.

Mr. Ogbo advised aldermen to discuss with their constituents the need to wash hands before eating as well as after using the bathroom. In addition, they should cover their mouths if sneezing and then dispose of the tissue used for that purpose.

Adding to that, Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, asked Mr. Ogbo whether he had changed the way cleaning staff cleaned City buildings, increasing the frequency. He also asked whether the City will be getting additional supplies of hand sanitizers and place orders for masks. Mr. Ogbo said that [the ordering of such items] will be a conversation he plans to have with the City’s facilities manager.

“Can I suggest you move with a level of urgency?” said Ald. Braithwaite, noting those items are already growing scarce.

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.