‘Stealth’ subvariant could stall Omicron surge’s freefall in Illinois

Illinois logged another 6,664 COVID-19 cases on Monday – the lowest daily caseload in seven weeks. Hospitalizations and the number of deaths from the virus also dropped yet again. But that encouraging news was tempered a bit by a report of the first case of the Omicron subvariant in Illinois.

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Nicole Fratto, a courtroom deputy supervisor, assists Assistant U.S. Attorney Phil Fluhr as he prepares to submit a saliva sample to test for COVID-19 at a free community testing site in the lobby of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse on Jan. 12.

Nicole Fratto, a courtroom deputy supervisor, assists Assistant U.S. Attorney Phil Fluhr as he prepares to submit a saliva sample to test for COVID-19 at a free community testing site in the lobby of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse on Jan. 12.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

SPRINGFIELD — Illinois’ once soaring Omicron surge took another nose dive with sharp drops in new cases and the number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals — but a new subvariant could stall the speed of that descent.

The Illinois Department of Public Health reported another 6,664 COVID-19 cases on Monday — less than half the number of new infections recorded just three days earlier and the lowest daily caseload in seven weeks.

Hospitalizations, intensive care beds occupied and the number of deaths from the virus also dropped yet again.

But that encouraging news was tempered a bit by a report of the first case of the Omicron subvariant in Illinois. The infected individual, who is from Chicago, was tested for COVID-19 on Jan. 18, according to researchers at Northwestern Medicine.

The subvariant, known as “stealth Omicron” or BA.2, has spread through parts of Europe and Asia. The World Health Organization has not determined it to be a variant of concern, a designation that can entail increased transmissibility, greater severity of cases, resistance to treatment or other troubling developments.

But whether the Omicron subvariant will just prove more of the same remains to be seen. Health experts are already warning of a potential stall in Illinois’ emergence from the surge.

A health care worker prepares a COVID-19 vaccine dose on the West Side in February of 2021.

A health care worker prepares a COVID-19 vaccine dose on the West Side in February of 2021.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

“If BA.2 follows the same pattern in the U.S. as observed in countries like the United Kingdom, Denmark or India, we could observe a slowing of the current decline in new cases,” Ramon Lorenzo-Redondo, the bioinformatics director at Northwestern Medicine’s Center for Pathogen Genomics and Microbial Evolution, said in a statement. “In this case, the number of new cases could stabilize for a while before starting to decrease again.”

Texas, New York and Wisconsin have already detected the subvariant, so it’s no surprise that it’s been found in Illinois, too, said Dr. Michael Angarone, an associate professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Northwestern Medicine.

Angarone said it’s too early to tell if this subvariant will be much different from the Omicron variant that filled the state’s hospital beds over the past month.

“We just don’t know about these variants and how they are going to behave differently than the variant that came before,” Angarone said. “When it comes to subvariants, we just don’t know how they’re going to act until we get more cases of them.”

Word of the Omicron subvariant came on a day of otherwise promising coronavirus news.

Just three and half weeks ago, Illinois reported its highest COVID-19 case count ever of 44,089, followed a week later by an all-time high of coronavirus hospitalizations high of 7,380.

But as of Sunday night, the number of hospital and intensive care unit beds occupied by COVID-19 patients in Illinois were at their lowest levels since mid-December.

Nurse Alma Abad checks on a 59-year-old patient with COVID-19 in the Intensive Care Unit at Roseland Community Hospital on the Far South Side in early January.

Nurse Alma Abad checks on a 59-year-old patient with COVID-19 in the Intensive Care Unit at Roseland Community Hospital on the Far South Side in early January.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

State public health officials reported 3,870 COVID-19 patients in hospital beds, 1,300 fewer than just a week prior. Patients afflicted with the virus in the state’s intensive care units dipped to 684, the lowest level since Dec. 10 and nearly 470 fewer than three weeks ago.

Hospitals are welcoming the relief, after bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s fifth and worst surge yet.

“One of the other major stressors that’s been kind of taken off of the plate for many hospitals and hospital systems is that not only are we not seeing as many patients getting admitted, but then a lot of the employees that were getting infected and having to remove themselves from work — we’re not seeing that either,” Angarone said.

Deaths also dropped to the lower double digits after topping 100 for nine of the previous 12 days.

An additional 28 deaths from COVID-19 were reported Monday, down sharply from the 129 reported just two days before and the lowest daily tally since the beginning of January.

As of Monday, 75% of Illinois’ population 18 years of age and older were fully vaccinated, and 85% have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

For help finding a shot, or to set up a free in-home vaccination appointment, visit chicago.gov/covidvax or call (312) 746-4835.

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