CHICAGO — The Illinois Department of Public Health reported 1,344 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday, including 66 additional deaths related to the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.

To date, there are 16,422 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 528 deaths statewide, according to Illinois Department of Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike, who urged Illinois residents to continue to heed the ongoing stay-at-home order.

“We are all making sacrifices and I ask you to stay the course,” Ezike said. “We are headed in the right direction because of all of the tremendous efforts by all of you. All of these actions are making a difference and we must continue to work together.”

Gov. JB Pritzker sounded a note of optimism during Thursday’s media briefing, saying COVID-19 cases are rising more slowly statewide.

“That indicates to us that we are, in fact, bending the curve,” Pritzker said. “There is even some evidence that we may be moving toward a flatter curve but we need to keep watching the data on a daily basis. Keep in mind our case numbers and the death toll are still growing and, thus, our fight must continue.”

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Pritzker saluted the people of Illinois for making the biggest difference in the state’s fight against COVID-19, calling them the first line of protection in their communities and households.

“Your individual decisions to help social distance, to not gather in groups, to wash your hands and to wear a mask outside have resulted in collective action that is saving people from getting sick and being hospitalized,” Pritzker said.

More than 45,000 people have answered the state’s call to volunteer through Serve Illinois, the state’s commission on volunteerism or Illinois Helps, a volunteer network of health professionals.

The state has set up a COVID-19 relief fund at coronavirus.illinois.gov.

“This pandemic is certainly testing the public health system,” Ezike said, noting this is National Public Health Week. “I want to say thank you to my public health professionals. But also, thank you to the doctors and the nurses and to the community organizations. Thank you to the essential workers that show up to work every day to make sure that all of the people of Illinois have the supplies and the products that they need.”

Ken DeCoster: 815-987-1391; kdecoster@rrstar.com; @DeCosterKen