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Only heart disease and cancer now killing more Illinoisans than COVID-19: ‘The virus is back with a vengeance’

The latest 140 deaths marked just the third time since the end of first wave of the pandemic in the spring that the state logged 100 or more deaths in a day. “These are our family members,” Dr. Ngozi Ezike said. “These are our coworkers. These are our loved ones that may be here now and won’t see 2021.”

Workers handle test samples from residents in vehicles at the COVID-19 testing site earlier this month at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy in Little Village.
Workers handle test samples from residents in vehicles at the COVID-19 testing site earlier this month at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy in Little Village.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

The coronavirus is now the third leading cause of death in Illinois, public health officials said Wednesday, reporting that the latest 140 lives lost raised the state’s pandemic death toll to 11,014.

The virus that a year ago was scarcely an afterthought for most Illinoisans is now killing more of them than strokes and accidents combined. Only heart disease and cancer are causing more grief, according to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office.

Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike estimated last month that the COVID-19 death toll would surpass 11,000 by the end of the year; she didn’t think it would happen with six weeks left on the calendar.

“It means we’re in bad shape,” Ezike said. “I need everybody’s help talking to one another, saying, ‘We really need to rethink Thanksgiving, we need to really rethink this party that you wanted to have…’ That is our path to making sure that we don’t continue to go past 11,000 to 12, to 13, to 14,000.”

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“These are our family members,” Ezike said. “These are our co-workers. These are our loved ones that may be here now and won’t see 2021.”

The latest deaths marked just the third time since the end of the first wave of the pandemic in the spring that the state logged 100 or more deaths in a day — but all three of those instances have occurred over the last eight days, as Illinois weathers an exponential viral resurgence along with most of the nation.

Illinois Department of Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike discusses how COVID-19 spreads at the James R. Thompson Center on Tuesday.
Illinois Department of Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike discusses how COVID-19 spreads at the James R. Thompson Center on Tuesday.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Ninety-five of the latest 140 victims came from the Chicago area. Eight of them ranged in age from their 30s to 50s.

The toll only figures to get worse in the weeks ahead as an unprecedented number of coronavirus patients continue to be admitted to Illinois hospitals. As of Tuesday night, COVID-19 patients occupied 5,953 beds, an increase of 66 from the previous night.

The number of patients requiring intensive care fell by 12 to 1,146, but the number of those requiring a ventilator ticked up again to 547, the most since the end of May.

Some hospitals in the northwest corner of the state, as well as some of Chicago’s far south suburbs, are already approaching capacity due to the surge in coronavirus patients.

“The virus is back with a vengeance,” Pritzker said.

Officials on Wednesday also reported an additional 8,922 cases of COVID-19 reported statewide, meaning a total of nearly 607,000 people have contracted the virus over the last eight months. That’s about 4.8% of the state’s population.

In one small, potential “glimmer of optimism” noted by Pritzker, the latest caseload — while still above the state’s daily average over the last month — marked the first time in almost two weeks that the state has reported fewer than 10,000 new cases.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker attends a news conference at the James R. Thompson Center in the Loop on Tuesday.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker attends a news conference at the James R. Thompson Center in the Loop on Tuesday.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

And they were detected among almost 104,000 tests, lowering the statewide average testing positivity rate to 11.9%, as low as it’s been since Nov. 9.

“But I have been fooled before by the numbers,” the Democratic governor said. “The numbers fluctuate a little bit... I don’t want to draw any conclusions until we see more days.”

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Either way, it’ll take a lot more improvement than that for any of the state’s 11 regions to shed Pritzker’s business restrictions that take effect Friday, limiting store capacities and shutting down theaters, museums and indoor sports programs.

In addition to improving hospital metrics, regions would need to lower their positivity rates below 12%. Two regions remain over 20% positivity and eight more are above 15%.

Chicago is at 15.5% positivity and suburban Cook County at 16%.