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Surge protectors? Experts urge vaccinations as state’s climbing COVID-19 cases spark concerns of ‘yet another wave’

The state logged 22,600 new cases of the deadly virus over the past week. The numbers, reported by the Illinois Department of Public Health on Friday, represent an increase of 29% over the seven-day caseload reported a week ago.

Jorge Guzman vaccinates Itzel Mendoza, 15, against COVID-19 on Vaccination Awareness Day  Friday morning.
Jorge Guzman vaccinates Itzel Mendoza, 15, against COVID-19 on Vaccination Awareness Day at Michele Clark Magnet High School in the South Austin neighborhood, Friday morning.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Coronavirus infections are once again climbing across Illinois, causing public health experts to worry the state is entering yet another surge — one year after it weathered the darkest days of the pandemic.

“This recent increase in cases and hospitalizations could mark the beginning of yet another wave,” a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health said in a statement, adding the agency “is closely monitoring the recent increase in cases and hospitalizations.”

The state logged 22,600 new cases of the deadly virus over the past week. The numbers, reported by the Illinois Department of Public Health on Friday, represent an increase of 29% over the seven-day caseload reported a week ago. The Friday total averages out to roughly 3,228 cases per day over the past week.

It’s still a fraction of the caseloads recorded last fall when Illinois was in its worst surge of the pandemic.

A year ago, almost to the day, the state logged what was then a national record for a single day with 15,415 new COVID-19 cases confirmed on Nov. 13, 2020.

A staff member of Community Organized Relief Effort’s teaches a person how to administer a COVID-19 mouth swab test in in Little Village last October.
A staff member of Community Organized Relief Effort’s teaches a person how to administer a COVID-19 mouth swab test in in Little Village last October.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

With vaccines available this year, public health officials are hoping any new surges will be nowhere near that severe.

But the rising numbers are sparking concerns all the same.

Friday’s tally of new cases is the highest seven-day caseload so far this fall.

And it’s the second weekly increase in a row after weeks of the state seeing — mostly — declining numbers of new COVID-19 cases, signaling that the state could be entering a fall surge.

The spokeswoman for the state’s public health department said Illinois is logging 171 cases per 100,000 people — a rate that was at 135 per 100,000 last week.

And case rates are up statewide. Regions 1 in the northwestern corner of Illinois, and Region 6, in the east-central portion are reporting the largest jumps.

Hospital admissions are also increasing “significantly” with around 150 new people being admitted to hospitals each day due to COVID-19, the spokeswoman said.

The number of available beds in intensive care units is decreasing. In many regions that’s due to COVID-19, though in others there’s a mix of patients being treated for the virus and other health issues. Chicago and Regions 1 and 6 have the lowest availability at 14%.

“Vaccination is the best way to protect yourself and others,” the spokeswoman said.

Dr. Raj Mahajan vaccinates Chicago Board of Education member Elizabeth Todd-Breland’s daughter Friday morning.
Dr. Raj Mahajan vaccinates Chicago Board of Education member Elizabeth Todd-Breland’s daughter, who was asked not to be named, against COVID-19 on Vaccination Awareness Day at Michele Clark Magnet High School in the South Austin neighborhood, Friday morning.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

State public health officials chalk up the rise to more people moving indoors because of falling temperatures.

“But they are not bringing their masks with them,” the spokeswoman said.

“The largest wave over the course of the pandemic began in October of last year — when people started spending more time indoors because of the weather and getting together with friends and family for the holidays,” she said.

“We want to do everything possible to make sure that doesn’t happen again this year. We will continue to monitor hospital bed availability, case rates, and vaccine uptake.”

University of Chicago epidemiologist Dr. Emily Landon said she expects a “bump” in new case numbers over the winter, but she can’t tell “if it’s going to be a big spiky surge like what we saw last year, or if it’s going to be more of like a little hill like we saw maybe over the summer.

“But my feeling is that it’s going to be somewhere in between those two — that it won’t be as bad as what we saw last year, and it won’t be as not a big deal as the little bunny hill we saw over the summer.”

“I think the vaccination is a good buffer,” she said, comparing the shots to a winter coat that helps “keep COVID from spreading.”

Dr. Emily Landon of the University of Chicago.
Dr. Emily Landon of the University of Chicago.
Provided

The state could potentially see more “breakthrough” cases among the vaccinated, if they are due for a booster shot but have not yet rolled up their sleeves.

If the breakthrough cases are mild, they could signify less of a problem. Landon said. The bigger problem is if those cases require hospitalizations.

The bigger problem is if those cases require hospitalizations.

“And we just don’t know what to expect with that,” Landon said.

Since this time period is “critical,” Illinoisans should use a similar risk analysis to what they may have employed last year ahead of Thanksgiving, she said. Those seeking to see their families for the upcoming holiday season may want to forego hanging out, unmasked, in bars before seeing elderly, immunocompromised relatives.

While the cases are rising, deaths from the deadly virus took a dip over the past week, with 129 lives lost, the lowest seven-day total in three months. Last week, the state reported 183 deaths over the past week.

The state’s seven-day test positivity rate is 3%. As of Thursday night, 1,553 people diagnosed with COVID-19 were reported to be in Illinois hospitals. Of that number, 307 patients were in intensive care units, and 140 COVID-positive patients were on ventilators.

A year ago, when the daily caseload was setting national records, the seven-day average statewide case positivity rate was over 13%.

As of Friday, a little more than 67% of the state’s population have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while 61% of the state is fully vaccinated, according to the state’s Friday report.

The seven-day rolling average for vaccines is 62,689 doses. Since last week, 439,291 vaccine doses were administered in Illinois, officials said.