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Illinois’ largest ever daily COVID-19 caseload sparks fears worst is yet to come: ‘We’re headed for a new peak’

“Instead of this being a new peak, where the number of cases comes up and then goes back down again, I think what we’re seeing is more like a mountain: you go up, you come down halfway, then you keep climbing up,” Dr. Emily Landon said. “And this mountain looks even taller than the last one.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker chats with medical personnel during a visit to a mobile COVID-19 testing station at Edward Coles School in the South Chicago neighborhood in July.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker chats with medical personnel during a visit to a mobile COVID-19 testing station at Edward Coles School in the South Chicago neighborhood in July.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Public health officials Thursday announced 4,015 more people have tested positive for the coronavirus in Illinois, the highest number of new cases ever reported by the state throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

The staggering caseload is one greater than the 4,014 cases confirmed by the Illinois Department of Public Health on May 12, when the state was weathering the worst days of the crisis.

But the latest tally “makes it look like we’re headed for a new peak,” according to one of Chicago’s top experts who has been at the front lines of the COVID-19 fight — an apex that could end up being even more deadly if people don’t take health guidelines seriously.

“Instead of this being a new peak, where the number of cases comes up and then goes back down again, I think what we’re seeing is more like a mountain: you go up, you come down halfway, then you keep climbing up,” University of Chicago epidemiologist Dr. Emily Landon said. “And this mountain looks even taller than the last one.”

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On average, almost three times as many people are being tested for the coronavirus per day compared to the spring — May’s high figure was confirmed among 29,266 tests, compared to 67,086 with this latest batch of positives — but cases, hospitalizations and deaths have all gradually risen over the last two weeks.

To account for increases in testing, experts say the seven-day average testing positivity rate is a more effective gauge of how rapidly the virus is spreading.

That statewide number has shot up to 4.9%, its highest point since early June — and up from just 3.3% as recently as Oct. 4.

Back in mid-May, the state’s average positivity rate hovered close to 20%.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office warned that the “coronavirus is still here and everyone must remain vigilant in following public health guidance by wearing masks, watching your distance and washing your hands. We know that after months of disruption, many are yearning for a return to normalcy, but the recent uptick in positivity around the state is a reminder that each of us plays an integral role in preventing the spread of this deadly virus.”

Officials on Thursday also announced the virus has claimed 53 more lives across the state, topping the daily death toll of 49 from a day earlier that had marked the worst figure since late June.

The latest fatalities were recorded in 30 of the state’s 102 counties, including 11 Cook County residents.

As has been the case throughout the pandemic, most of the victims were elderly, but a man in his 20s from Knox County in western Illinois was included in the latest death count.

While the survival rate is still 96%, deaths can be expected to keep trending upward as experts say coronavirus flareups such as Illinois has seen follow a predictable, deadly pattern: Infections rise among young people, and they pass it on to older, vulnerable people who are more likely to end up hospitalized or dead.

The season is one reason for Illinois’ new uptick in cases, Landon said, with the virus traveling through cooler and drier air, and people gathering indoors. Landon’s hospital is already seeing more coronavirus patients, and she said she expects it to get worse as the holidays approach.

“Colder weather, the pressure to participate in holidays, the overall pandemic fatigue — it’s a dangerous combination,” Landon said. “There’s just not a safe way to do eating and drinking indoors around a lot of other people. That’s going to cause a lot of trouble heading into the holidays. It’s really hard not to have Thanksgiving. That’s going to make a lot of people want to take some risks. That can result in a lot of tragedy.”

Pritzker’s office said “private gatherings are one of the main drivers of spread, so it’s advised that you not gather in large groups and always wear your mask when around others.”

Landon said she doesn’t think another stay-at-home order will be necessary because masks are more widely available, and experts have a better grasp on how to treat the disease.

But Landon did make one policy recommendation.

“Restaurants and bars should be closed. I don’t wish them to go out of business, but the reality is it’s not safe to be indoors without masks on in crowded situations, with people we don’t know, without proper ventilation — the standards of which, we don’t even know what they need to be. We just don’t have the data.

“I have tremendous optimism. It’s going to take an incredible amount of personal sacrifice, which people are justifiably sick of doing. It’s going to be hard to swallow the pill we have to swallow.”

Pritzker’s health team banned indoor service at bars and restaurants earlier this in the northwest region of the state that includes Rockford, where the positivity rate is up to 10.3%. Two other regions previously were hit with restrictions by the Democratic governor, but have since been restored.

Since late summer, the state’s COVID-19 problem areas have mostly been outside the Chicago region, but the city is trending the wrong way too, up to 5.2% positivity.

Since March, more than 6.5 million COVID-19 tests have been administered in Illinois. Of those, 331,620 people have tested positive, and 9,127 have died with the virus.

As of Wednesday night, 1,932 Illinois coronavirus patients were hospitalized, with 388 receiving intensive care and 147 using ventilators.

Officials confirmed Thursday’s case total was the highest for a single day on record. The state reported 5,368 cases Sept. 4, but that was the result of a data processing backlog that included up to three days of cases.