Infection rates fall as Illinois coronavirus death toll passes 15,000

Friday was the 11th consecutive day Illinois reported 100 or more fatalities. Previously, that had never happened more than five days in a row.

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Pharmacy resident Rona Jin prepares the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine and draws doses from the vial in preparation for the first round of vaccinations Thursday at Mount Sinai Hospital.

Pharmacy resident Rona Jin prepares the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine and draws doses from the vial in preparation for the first round of vaccinations Thursday at Mount Sinai Hospital. About 109,000 health care workers are expected to be vaccinated across Illinois through the weekend.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Coronavirus infection rates fell across Illinois again Friday as public health officials announced COVID-19 has killed another 181 residents and spread to 7,377 more people statewide.

The new cases were diagnosed among 112,292 tests submitted to the Illinois Department of Public Health, meaning only about 6.6% of tests returned positive. That’s the lowest proportion of positive results reported by the state in a day since Oct. 27, when the virus was just beginning to surge to all-time highs across the state.

Most of the state’s metrics have gradually fallen since hitting a brutal mid-November peak. The seven-day average positivity rate statewide is down to 8%, as low as it has been since Nov. 1.

“We’re very glad that things are moving in the right direction. We’re also concerned the numbers have not come down as precipitously as we would have liked to have seen by now,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said. “That’s of great concern to us.”

Of greatest concern are the number of coronavirus deaths in the state, which continue to mount at an unprecedented frequency.

Friday was the 11th consecutive day Illinois reported 100 or more fatalities. Previously, that had never happened more than five days in a row.

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The latest deaths, which included 104 Chicago-area residents, pushed the state’s death toll past the 15,000 mark, up to 15,015 — just one week after Illinois surpassed 14,000 deaths.

On top of that, officials say about 1,200 more deaths throughout the pandemic are considered to have been probable but untested cases of the disease.

More than 4,000 confirmed coronavirus deaths have occurred in the last month alone, and it won’t get better soon, according to Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike.

“Until there are essentially no cases, then there will be the point where we can talk about having very few deaths or not,” Ezike said. “We’re still a ways away from that, unfortunately, but that is the sad truth.”

Experts say deaths are a “lagging indicator” of the pandemic, because a surge in cases is typically followed a few weeks later by a rise in hospitalizations that are more likely to end in tragedy.

As infection rates have slowly decreased, so has the burden on hospitals across the state, which were treating 4,690 coronavirus patients as of Thursday night. That’s the first time that number has fallen below 4,700 since Nov. 8.

Two of the state’s 11 regions are meeting the requirements laid out by Pritzker last month to shed the Tier 3 mitigations on businesses that have shut down indoor bar and restaurant service.

But in anticipation of a potential surge in holiday transmission — which was largely avoided after Thanksgiving — the Democratic governor has said his restrictions will stay in place into the new year.

“As we watch those numbers, those will have an enormous effect on whether we can bring down the tiers from Tier 3 to Tier 2 and beyond … That’s what we’re focused on every day, that’s what I have been focused on: making sure that we’re heading in the right direction at the right speed.”

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The end is slowly coming into view as the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine is administered to health care workers statewide. As of Friday morning, about 17,000 doses had been given out, with the rest of Illinois’ initial allotment of 109,000 doses expected to be injected into workers’ arms through the weekend.

The state has been promised an unspecified share of 4.3 million doses scheduled to be shipped to hundreds of cities next week by the federal government. Hundreds of thousands more shots could soon be on tap now that the Moderna vaccine has received federal approval.

The federal government has enlisted CVS and Walgreens to launch vaccination programs at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, a process that is scheduled to begin in Illinois the week of Dec. 28.

After health care workers and nursing home residents, essential workers and older residents with health conditions are next in line for vaccinations. Shots won’t be available to the general public for several months.

Since March, about 12.3 million coronavirus tests have been administered across the state, with nearly 887,000 people confirmed to carry COVID-19.

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