117 more Illinois coronavirus deaths as vaccine brings state to ‘beginning of the end’

COVID-19 deaths are still occurring at an alarming rate, with an average of 150 fatalities per day so far this month.

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Nurse Shannon Lesch prepares to administer one of Illinois’ first five Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccinations outside of Chicago to chief of Emergency Services Dr. Victor Chan, 35, at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in downstate Peoria on Tuesday.

Nurse Shannon Lesch prepares to administer one of Illinois’ first five Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccinations outside of Chicago to chief of Emergency Services Dr. Victor Chan, 35, at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in downstate Peoria on Tuesday.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The coronavirus has killed an additional 117 Illinoisans and spread to 7,359 more, public health officials announced Tuesday, as the state embarked on an unprecedented vaccination campaign.

The new cases were diagnosed among 92,922 tests, lowering the state’s average positivity rate for an eighth straight day down to 8.6%. It marked the fifth straight day — and the ninth of the last 11 — that the Illinois Department of Public Health has reported fewer than 10,000 new cases.

COVID-19 hospital admissions also continued on a promising downward trend since vaulting to record highs in late November. As of Monday night, 4,965 beds were occupied by coronavirus patients, with 1,057 receiving intensive care and 598 on ventilators. That’s the first time nightly ventilator usage has dipped below 600 since Nov. 21.

“We are starting to head in the right direction,” Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said. “So many of you have sacrificed and employed all of the public health mitigations… We still do have many more months to go, but let’s continue toward that light at the end of the tunnel.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker looks on as Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, speaks to reporters in December.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker looks on as Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, speaks to reporters after a nurse administered Illinois’ first five Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccinations outside of Chicago at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in downstate Peoria.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

But the state is still reeling from an alarming daily rate of COVID-19 fatalities as a result of the autumn case surge. Illinois has reported at least 100 deaths for all but two days so far this month, for an average of 150 deaths per day.

The latest victims included 13 Cook County residents and 37 more from across the Chicago area. The virus has claimed at least 14,509 lives while spreading to more than 863,000 people in Illinois since March.

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The state’s first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine were administered Tuesday morning almost nine months to the day after Chicagoan Patricia Frieson became the state’s first known resident to die of the virus that has turned life upside down around the globe.

A total of 10 health care workers lifted their sleeves up for the cameras at hospitals in Chicago and Peoria to receive the historic inoculations. Gov. J.B. Pritzker said about 109,000 frontline hospital workers should take up the state’s first vaccine shipment by the end of the week.

The challenge for public health officials now is to persuade skeptical residents to get the shot when they have access, and to keep following masking and social distancing guidelines over the next several months before vaccines are widely available. A second vaccine developed by Moderna vaccine is expected to receive federal approval later this week, meaning hundreds of thousands more doses could soon be headed to Illinois.

“It’s an important step, but there’s still absolutely another step, as well as the continued mitigations that have to continue,” Ezike said. “I think everyone has reason to be excited that we are at the beginning of the end.”

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