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Illinois hits all-time record high of daily COVID cases

On Wednesday, Illinois reported 16,581 people tested positive for the virus, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. The previous record was set Nov. 13, 2020, with 15,415 positive cases that day.

A medical professional gives instructions to people waiting in line to get tested for COVID-19 at a test site, Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021 at 2641 W Division St in Humboldt Park. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
A medical professional gives instructions to people waiting in line to get tested for COVID-19 at a test site, Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021 at 2641 W Division St in Humboldt Park. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

With the Omicron variant surging, Illinois has set a single-day record in cases of COVID-19.

The 16,581 cases of the coronavirus reported Wednesday beat the previous high of 15,415 cases, set on Nov. 13, 2020, according to state data.

The number of people in Illinois hospitalized for the virus, 4,178, is the highest it’s been all year, that’s the number reported as of the end of the day Tuesday. And more people are in the Illinois intensive-care units being treated for COVID-19 than on any other day this year, filling 867 beds statewide. Hospitalization and ICU numbers haven’t been this high since Dec. 29, 2020.

Hospital pharmacist Jenna Lopez said the hospital is bracing for an overflow of patients. How quickly the Omicron variant is spreading is different than past surges, said Lopez, 32, of West Town.

“It’s rough,” Lopez said. “Part of it feels like the beginning of the pandemic again.”

Lopez waited about an hour outside a testing site on West Division Street on Wednesday after “lots of exposure” to the virus, in both work and social settings. After spending the holidays apart from family in 2020, Lopez said she initially expected a normal holiday season thanks to the vaccine. The latest surge has led her to remain undecided about whether to fly to Las Vegas to visit her brother Friday.

Illinois also reported an additional 66 lives claimed by the virus Wednesday, exceeding the average daily deaths of 49, though 70 deaths were reported on multiple days last week.

Dr. Emily Landon, executive medical director for infection prevention and control for University of Chicago Medicine, said record-high case and hospitalization numbers are “exactly what you’d expect from a virus like Omicron,” a fast-spreading variant of COVID-19. In fact, Landon anticipates cases will double every two or three days, though that may not be reflected in state data, due to many people taking at-home tests that aren’t reported.

“Omicron is a different animal than what we were dealing with before,” Landon said. “If everybody gets sick at one time, there’ll be nobody to do work, to drive the train, run the hotel, deliver the mail and packages or take care of patients in the hospital.

“It’s time to come to terms with the fact that a lot of people are going to test positive for COVID,” Landon said.

But that doesn’t mean vaccines aren’t working, Landon said. Most people who are vaccinated will have milder symptoms if they test positive. With many people traveling for the holidays, Landon said it’s essential to avoid contact with people outside your circle and to test frequently.

Since the onset of the pandemic, more than 2 million people have contracted the virus in Illinois. Nearly 200,000 tests statewide were reported Wednesday, slightly above the state average of 193,450 tests administered per day.

“Getting tested for COVID-19 is critically important to helping reduce the spread of this deadly virus,” Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, said in a news release Tuesday. “A year ago, our holidays looked much different. Now, with widely available testing, vaccinations and boosters Illinoisans can gather safely with family and friends.”

The state health department partnered with SHIELD Illinois to offer 20 free COVID-19 rapid-test sites; two are in Chicago.

People lined the sidewalk outside the West Town testing site Wednesday evening, often waiting over an hour in below-freezing temperatures before getting tested.

That site was the second place Alex Rejman went to try to get tested Wednesday, who said the place she’s gotten tested at in the past was “really busy.” Rejman, 26, who lives in the neighborhood, said a bartender at the restaurant where she works tested positive, so to return to work, she needs a negative test.

Though seeing family for the holidays was a partial factor in getting tested, Rejman said she “might not have gone if work hadn’t made me.”

The Omicron variant is especially why Michael Mitchell got tested Wednesday. He has family coming to visit for the holidays, including his stepfather who is older and a cousin who just had a baby, said Mitchell, 34, of Hyde Park.

“I just came to make sure I’m not getting any of the new strains,” Mitchell said. “I got tested a couple weeks ago. I’ll probably get tested at least once a month now.”