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Spring outbreak? COVID-19 rising among young people, despite vaccine ramp-up: ‘We are worried about this’

The city has seen marked increases in Loop and Near North neighborhoods that are home to many younger residents, plus parts of the North and Northwest sides. Seven of the latest outbreaks have been traced to sports programs, either in high school, college or adult recreational leagues. 

Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady speaks to reporters outside the University of Illinois Mile Square Health Center on Monday.
Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady speaks to reporters outside the University of Illinois Mile Square Health Center on Monday.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Young people are letting their guard down against COVID-19 and driving cases back upward across Chicago and the rest of Illinois even as vaccine supply improves, the top doctors from the city and state warned Tuesday.

Coronavirus infections have increased about 23% in Chicago over the past week, and are up 30% compared to two weeks ago, according to Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady. Emergency room visits are up 45% compared to earlier this month.

The bulk of the new cases have been diagnosed in people between 18 and 40 years old — the same trend Arwady’s team saw in October, before a record-breaking fall resurgence that brought about the city’s worst days of the entire pandemic.

“We are worried about this,” Arwady said. “We’ll be in good shape this summer, but I am really worried about this next four to eight weeks. … We are not at a point where we can assume that most people have started to get some protection from the vaccine.”

The city has seen marked increases in Loop and Near North neighborhoods that are home to many younger residents, plus parts of the North and Northwest sides.

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.

Seven of the latest outbreaks have been traced to sports programs, either in high school, college or adult recreational leagues.

“This is about the fact that people are getting their life back, which we love, but needing to keep those masks on,” said Arwady, who stopped short of suggesting the city could be facing a third surge.

“I don’t know, fully, what’s going to happen here. I do know that we are pushing vaccine absolutely as quickly as we can, ramping up our monitoring for the variants … and continuing to ask people to do what has gotten us this far,” she said.

If Chicago’s numbers flatten out at the current level, the city still could “move towards reopening,” Arwady said.

They’re trending up across the rest of the state. The Illinois Department of Public Health reported Tuesday that 1,832 new cases of the disease were diagnosed among 49,739 tests. That lowered the average statewide positivity a notch down to 2.5% compared to a day earlier. But that key indicator of transmission had been at a record low of 2.1% on March 13 — a net increase of 19% in a span of just 10 days.

COVID-19 hospital admissions have crept upward, too, with 1,270 beds occupied Monday night.

The rising metrics come weeks after public health officials identified three more infectious strains of COVID-19 in the state — and weeks before more business restrictions are set to be loosened by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

Officials also reported 13 more coronavirus deaths on Tuesday, including two Cook County women in their 60s. Daily death rates have fallen by about half over the past month, but experts agree an increase in cases results in an increase in hospitalizations and deaths weeks later.

Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike speaks at a briefing last year.
Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike speaks at a briefing last year.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

“Even as we’re getting more and more vaccine doses, we cannot let our guard down, especially with these virulent new strains circulating,” Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said in a statement. “We’ve come so far and are so close to a more normal time, but we’re already seeing some concerning plateaus and even increases in hospitalizations and cases.

“We’re not out of the woods yet so continue to wear your masks, avoid large crowds, and keep six feet of distance,” Ezike said.

COVID-19 vaccine doses administered by day

Graphic by Jesse Howe and Caroline Hurley | Sun-Times

Source: Illinois Department of Public Health

Graph not displaying properly? Click here.

A total of 70,252 COVID-19 shots went into arms statewide Monday, a third straight disappointing daily total that lowered Illinois’ average number of vaccinations per day to 91,000 — its lowest point since March 4. Ezike’s agency said that number could be underreported due to “discrepancies” with the federal government “in some of the vaccine administration data.”

More than 4.8 million doses have been administered in all across the state, with nearly 1.8 million residents fully vaccinated — about 14% of the population. Only about 11% of Chicago residents have been fully immunized, Arwady said.

The city also updated its travel quarantine order to include Michigan as a hot-spot state due to a brutal two-week period in which the daily case rate has more than doubled in that state.

Michigan is now Illinois’ only immediate neighbor on the list of 26 “orange” level states from which the city requires travelers to quarantine upon arrival in Chicago, or else show up with proof of a recent negative test. Any unnecessary travel is still discouraged.

Over the past year, more than 1.2 million Illinoisans have tested positive for the virus, and 21,116 have died.