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Pritzker to announce this week when vaccine will be available to people 65 and older

As of Sunday, 334,939 doses of vaccine had been administered in Illinois.

Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, discusses coronavirus cases late last year. On Monday, her agency announced another 4,776 new cases of the disease and 53 more deaths. | Sun-Times file photo.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

State health officials hope to make significantly more progress in vaccinating citizens before a COVID-19 mutation that is thought to be 50% more contagious takes root in Illinois.

It’s “only a matter of time” until the new virus strain — known as the “UK variant” — is identified in Illinois and becomes the dominant strain within months, causing an uptick in cases and deaths, the state’s top health official Dr. Ngozi Ezike said Monday.

The new strain has been identified in at least nine states.

As of Sunday, 334,939 doses of vaccine had been administered in Illinois — a number that includes Chicago, which handles vaccine distribution separately from the state, as well as a federally run program to vaccinate residents and staff at nursing homes.

The vast majority of doses have gone to health care workers in the state’s first phase of vaccination, which includes about 850,000 people.

Pritzker said Monday he expects he will announce later this week when Illinois will move on to the next phase of vaccine distribution that will include people 65 and older, but generally prioritize those over 75.

The second phase includes about 3.2 million people and, despite some hesitancy among health care workers slated for vaccination in the first phase, Ezike said she expects the vaccine to start “flying off the shelf” when made available to them.

Some local health departments that have made substantial progress in vaccinating nursing homes and health care workers will be able to begin administering doses to people over 65 before the process begins statewide, Pritzker said.

Ezike encouraged people to take to social media and post photos of themselves being vaccinate along with the hashtag #VAXUPIL in the hope “that more people will roll up their sleeves and do the same.”

Also Monday, state health officials reported 53 coronavirus-related deaths and 4,776 new cases Monday.

That brings the total death toll in Illinois to 17,627 since the start of the pandemic.

The seven-day statewide positivity rate, which indicates how rapidly the virus is spreading, fell to 7.6% on Monday from 7.9% on Sunday, officials said. A week ago, the positivity rate was 8.6%.

As of Sunday night, 3,540 people were being treated in hospitals in Illinois for the coronavirus. Of those, 759 were in intensive care and 401 were on ventilators.

Cook County accounted for 43 of the new deaths, including nine people under the age of 60 as well as six people — three men and three women — in their 90s.

The latest batch of positive tests come after testing 66,697 laboratory specimens, the state said. Illinois has analyzed 14,169,986 tests overall.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Monday extended the city’s stay-home advisory until Jan. 22, matching the state mandate.

“We extended [the advisory] to make sure it was aligned with what the state was doing. But we are making significant progress,” Lightfoot said.

Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady agreed Chicago is “in a much, much better place than we were and, in fact, we’re doing much better than the majority of the country.”

Lightfoot can order stronger measures in Chicago but can’t be more lax than state rules.

Across the U.S., where the outbreak has entered its most lethal phase yet and the death toll has climbed to about 375,000, politicians and public health officials have complained over the past several days that too many shots were sitting unused on the shelves because of overly rigid adherence to the guidelines that put health care workers and nursing home residents at the front of the line.

As of Monday morning, about 6.7 million Americans had received their first shot of the vaccine, or just 2% of the U.S. population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Experts say as much as 85% of the population will have to be inoculated to achieve “herd immunity” and vanquish the outbreak.

Contributing: Fran Spielman and The Associated Press