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Omicron on the horizon: COVID-19 hospitalizations hit nearly 10-month high as latest variant looms: ‘We need to be serious’

With Illinois facing its fifth surge of the pandemic even before the arrival of the Omicron variant, officials say it’s time to take extra precautions — but not yet shutter businesses or schools.

A patient is wheeled out of the Intensive Care Unit at Roseland Community Hospital on the Far South Side last December.
A patient is wheeled out of the Intensive Care Unit at Roseland Community Hospital on the Far South Side last December.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

It’s only a matter of time before Omicron surfaces in Chicago, but COVID-19 is already surging across Illinois — and the strategy won’t change much whenever the latest variant does show up, the city’s top doctor said Tuesday.

With coronavirus hospitalizations at the highest level seen since last winter — and with more than a quarter of the state population still unvaccinated — it’s back to the basics of hand-washing, social distancing, masking and, most importantly, vaccinating, according to Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady.

“Yes, I’m concerned about it. No, the sky is not falling, but we need to be serious, and we need to get people vaccinated,” Arwady said.

Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady, pictured at a news conference last year. Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

“I am not personally hugely concerned about this variant for myself, as someone who is fully vaccinated and boosted and [who] takes precautions. I am worried at a population level, certainly, about this new variant, and I don’t know for sure what the future will hold here.”

For now, at least, the future doesn’t include a lockdown with business restrictions or school closures like the ones that defined early months of the pandemic.

“If we had to go there, that would only be in the setting of if we were really seeing major threats to our health care system. … We are nowhere near that, and nothing that I’m seeing at this point is making me hugely concerned about going there. I’m extremely confident in these vaccines,” Arwady said.

While early evidence suggests the Omicron variant could be more infectious, experts say the vaccines that are free and readily available at pharmacies nationwide will still likely provide protection against severe cases. More research is underway.

But COVID-19 started surging in Illinois for several weeks before the latest Greek letter was added to the pandemic lexicon.

New COVID-19 cases by day

Graphic by Jesse Howe and Caroline Hurley | Sun-Times

Source: Illinois Department of Public Health

Graph not displaying properly? Click here.

With the Illinois Department of Public Health reporting 5,714 newly diagnosed infections Tuesday, average daily case counts have nearly doubled over the past month. The seven-day average statewide case positivity rate has more than doubled over that span, now up to 4.1% — and the 2,379 COVID-19 patients who were hospitalized Monday night marked the greatest burden the state’s hospitals have faced since Feb. 2.

Meanwhile, 26.3% of eligible Illinoisans are still unvaccinated. In Chicago, 27.3% of residents 5 or older still haven’t gotten a shot.

“I don’t want people thinking again that they should wait [to get vaccinated]. We’re in a surge, with no signs of slowing down at this point,” Arwady said.

Nurse Tamara Jones checks blood sugar levels for a 73-year-old COVID-19 patient on a ventilator in the Intensive Care Unit at Roseland Community Hospital in December of 2020.
Nurse Tamara Jones checks blood sugar levels for a 73-year-old woman with COVID-19 and on a ventilator in the Intensive Care Unit at Roseland Community Hospital last December.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Officials also reported 23 more COVID-19 deaths statewide.

Though average daily tolls haven’t yet increased, it’s likely only a matter of time before they do. It’s the tragically predictable pattern that has already played out in each of the state’s four previous surges since March 2020: Rising case counts lead to more hospitalizations and deaths within a few weeks.

The virus has claimed at least 26,414 Illinois lives throughout the pandemic, including nearly 12,000 since vaccines became available.

Of the 7.8 million residents who have been fully vaccinated so far, 0.048% have ended up in a hospital with COVID-19, and 0.014% have died.