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Reopening retreat: State’s move into less restrictive ‘bridge phase’ pushed back as cases rise, hospital beds fill

Some business restrictions had been on pace to be lifted this week, but that plan is on hold as hospitals see more and more COVID-19 patients, according to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s health team.

Nurse Jessica Bell administers sedative medication for a man with COVID-19 at Roseland Community Hospital last December, when Illinois was in the midst of its second viral surge. The state could be on the verge of yet another resurgence, officials warn.
Nurse Jessica Bell administers sedative medication for a man with COVID-19 at Roseland Community Hospital last December, when Illinois was in the midst of its second viral surge. The state could be on the verge of yet another resurgence, officials warn.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Reopening plans are being pushed back in Illinois as COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations rise yet again statewide, public health officials announced Tuesday.

With 70% of seniors vaccinated with at least one dose, the state had been on pace to see some business restrictions lifted this week under Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s “bridge phase” before a full reopening by May.

Not so anymore, as coronavirus cases mount and more people head to hospitals with the deadly respiratory disease. The governor’s intermediate reopening plan also required hospitalizations to “hold steady or decline over a 28-day monitoring period.”

That count has risen almost daily since hitting a one-year low of 1,082 beds occupied by COVID-19 patients March 12. A total of 1,396 beds were taken up Monday night — the most since late February.

“As long as new hospital admissions continue to increase, the state will not advance to the Bridge Phase and on to Phase 5 of the Restore Illinois Plan,” officials from the Illinois Department of Public Health said in a statement. “The number of cases of COVID-19 has seen an increasing trend as well. Health officials continue to urge all residents to continue to mask up, socially distance, and avoid crowds to reduce transmission and bring the metrics back in line to transition to the Bridge Phase.”

Museums, zoos, amusement parks and convention centers would have increased to 60% capacity in the “bridge phase.”

Pritzker’s order to hold steady marks the latest troubling rise in the rollercoaster pandemic, even as its end inches into view thanks to a widening vaccination campaign.

Illinois hadn’t yet reached the peak of its first surge this time last year. That happened in late April, when nightly hospitalizations hovered near 5,000.

Residents helped successfully bend the curve through the spring and summer, when about 1,500 beds were taken up each night — before a devastating fall resurgence shot that figure beyond 6,000 during the worst nights of the pandemic in mid-November.

After the first vaccine shots went into Illinois arms in mid-December, the state’s infection rate sank to an all-time low by the second week of March.

But now, a third surge could be in the offing as Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot have sounded the alarm on rising transmission among young adults paying less heed to basic COVID-19 precautions. In an effort to administer more shots as quickly as possible, the governor has given local health departments the go-ahead to make all adults eligible for vaccination immediately in areas where demand for appointments had tapered off.

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.

The state reported 2,404 new cases were diagnosed among 51,579 tests, raising the state’s average testing positivity rate over the past week to 3.4%. Experts use that number to track how rapidly the virus is spreading.

It’s still barely a quarter as high as it was during the peak of the pandemic, but it was at 2.1% on March 12 — a net increase of 62% in just 17 days.

The uptick has been even more dramatic in Chicago, where the regional positivity rate is at 4.2% — an increase of a full percentage point in a week. In the Jefferson Park neighborhood, it’s up to a “staggering” 8%, Lightfoot said in a tweet.

About 473 residents are testing positive each day, up 34% compared to a week ago, according to the city’s Department of Public Health.

“The numbers we’re seeing now are alarming and we must move quickly to get them down,” Lightfoot said. “Folks, the pandemic is not over. Warmer weather is not an excuse to make reckless decisions. Please continue following public health guidance.”

The state also reported 17 more deaths, including that of a McHenry County man in his 30s.

The virus has claimed about 23 Illinois lives per day over the last week. The state’s fatality rate has stayed relatively flat this month, but experts say the pandemic follows a predictable pattern of rising cases leading to more serious infections weeks later and ultimately more death.

The state also reported 86,812 vaccine doses were administered Monday. About 105,040 shots are going into arms every day.

More than 2.1 million residents have been fully vaccinated so far, or about 16.6% of the population.

Over the past year, more than 1.2 million residents have contracted the virus, and 21,273 have died.

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.