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Illinois’ COVID-19 infection rate — while still low — doubles in two weeks: ‘We could easily backslide’

The state’s latest spike — while still small — has been driven largely by a rise in cases in downstate counties with lower vaccination rates, areas that experts say are ripe for transmission of the more infectious Delta variant.

Residents line up for COVID-19 tests last fall at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy, at 2850 W. 24th Blvd. Illinois’ case positivity rate has doubled over the past two weeks, though it’s still very low compared to the worst days of the pandemic.
Residents line up for COVID-19 tests last fall at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy, at 2850 W. 24th Blvd. Illinois’ case positivity rate has doubled over the past two weeks, though it’s still very low compared to the worst days of the pandemic.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Fewer people are ending up in hospitals and even fewer are dying, but COVID-19 is still making its latest comeback in Illinois.

Figures released Friday by public health officials show the statewide coronavirus infection rate has more than doubled in barely two weeks.

The spike is driven largely by a rise in cases in downstate counties with lower vaccination rates — areas that experts say are ripe for transmission of the more infectious Delta variant. But numbers are trending slightly upward in the Chicago area, too.

It’s nothing close to the worst days of the crisis, but officials warn the uptick could threaten progress the state has made just when the end of the pandemic seemed within reach.

“We’re in a much better position now than we were last year, but you can see how if people aren’t careful, we could easily backslide, especially with the Delta variant roaming around,” said Nathan Ryder, community outreach coordinator for the Southern 7 Health Department. His agency covers the seven counties on the southernmost tip of the state, including the one with Illinois’ lowest vaccination rate.

Statewide, the seven-day average case positivity rate is at 1.5%, the highest it’s been since the first week of June, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

That figure hit a pandemic low of 0.6% on June 18 and stayed there for a week. It’s been on a sharp rise ever since — a net increase of 150% in a span of just two weeks.

The state reported 2,945 new cases over the past week, compared to 2,120 the previous week. That’s a 39% increase in average daily cases, from 303 per day to 420 — even during a week that saw a dramatic testing drop due to the Fourth of July holiday.

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 jump has been even more pronounced in regions bordering Missouri, which has one of America’s lowest vaccination rates and has emerged as the nation’s current epicenter of the pandemic.

Ryder said that’s likely a key reason the Southern 7 saw a “startling” jump in its positivity rate last week, tripling to 4.4%. “A lot of people have family in southern Missouri. They work there. They shop there. They’re mixing around there a lot,” he said.

The Metro East region near St. Louis has jumped from 3.2% on June 25 to 6.1% — on a clear trajectory for the 8% threshold that could prompt Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office to intervene with “mitigations” such as restaurant capacity limits that have been lifted since the state fully reopened last month.

That region includes two of the eight counties — all outside the Chicago area — that are now considered by state officials to be at a COVID-19 warning level due to metrics moving in the wrong direction. Until Friday, it had been at least a month since any of Illinois’ 102 counties had been slapped with the warning label.

Orange counties on this map of Illinois are considered to be a COVID-19 “warning level.”
Orange counties on this map of Illinois are considered to be a COVID-19 “warning level.”
Illinois Department of Public Health

Chicago has jumped from 0.4% positivity to 0.9% in the last week. City Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady has said she’s not concerned yet, attributing it to a 40% drop in testing. Suburban Cook County is at just 1%, though that number has been rising consistently since mid-June.

Overall, the figures trail well below the double-digit positivity rates that Illinois weathered in the worst days of the pandemic. The average number of nightly COVID-19 hospitalizations is still hovering a bit over 400, near an all-time low. And the state recorded its first day without a COVID-19 death in nearly 16 months earlier this week.

But increases that seem small can quickly balloon, as the state has seen time and again over the last 16 months.

“With the more contagious Delta variant circulating, we need more people to be fully vaccinated to better control this pandemic,” Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said in a statement.

At least 228 cases of the virus’ most infectious variant yet have been identified so far in Illinois. It’s expected to become the most dominant strain in the months ahead. Vaccines have still proven highly effective against it.

About 49% of all residents are fully vaccinated so far. In Chicago, it’s closer to 50%. Rates lag in Metro East counties like Madison (42%), St. Clair (41%) and Randolph (37%).

Not even 15% of residents have completed their vaccine series in Alexander County, the lowest rate in the state. It’s not much better in any of the other Southern 7 counties. Barely a quarter of their 70,000 residents are fully vaccinated, Ryder said.

Officials suspect that rate is at least slightly undercounted due to people getting their shots in other states. Either way, demand is down to “a slow trickle.”

“At this point, it doesn’t seem like we’re going to be able to get many of those people to move to get vaccinated unless we see another big surge or something else that makes people say, ‘Hey, this is a big deal,’” Ryder said.

His agency is facing the same obstacles officials are up against in many Chicago neighborhoods and suburbs: vaccine hesitancy and a distrust of the health care system, especially in communities of color.

“We’re working with a population that generally does not visit health care providers. They don’t really believe that’s a benefit to them. It’s a huge hurdle to get over,” he said.

So besides launching pop-up shot clinics, “we’re doing our best to get the word out,” Ryder said, “just letting people know that we’re here, the vaccines are safe, and we will make it as easy and convenient as possible for you to get them.”

Free in-home vaccination appointments are available to all Chicagoans by calling (312) 746-4835. For help finding other providers, visit coronavirus.illinois.gov or call (833) 621-1284.