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Preparing for the worst: Cook County deploys trailers to hospitals to handle looming surge in COVID-19 deaths

More than 250 Cook County residents died of COVID-19 last week, the worst weekly toll seen in the Chicago area since vaccines were introduced. Over the past seven days, the entire state has averaged more than 25,000 COVID-19 infections. That’s roughly like the population of suburban Melrose Park testing positive each day. 

Cook County Medical Examiner forensic technician Pero Paunovich wheels the body of a COVID-19 victim from an emergency-management truck in May of 2020.
Cook County Medical Examiner forensic technician Pero Paunovich wheels the body of a COVID-19 victim from an emergency-management truck in May of 2020.
Charles Rex Arbogast/AP file

As Illinois sets COVID-19 case and hospitalization records by the day, authorities are making room for more bodies in anticipation of another surge in viral deaths — which are already at the highest level seen in almost a year.

The Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office on Wednesday announced officials have started deploying trailers to hospitals “to help decompress their morgues if necessary” as they treat the most COVID patients they’ve ever seen.

Trailers already have been sent by the Cook County Department of Emergency Management and Regional Security to Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Resurrection Medical Center on the Northwest Side and Ingalls Memorial Hospital in Harvey, county spokesperson Natalia Derevyanny said.

Holy Cross Hospital in the Marquette Park neighborhood has had a trailer since June. One has been parked outside the county’s Near West Side morgue throughout the pandemic, but another was delivered Wednesday.

The ominous measure was taken as the county confirmed its 13,000th coronavirus death of the pandemic, including 254 last week — the worst weekly toll since vaccines were widely introduced.

It only took six weeks for Cook County to record its latest thousand COVID deaths, compared to the three and a half months that elapsed between the county’s 11,000th and 12,000th fatalities.

But the tragic rise hasn’t been confined to Chicago. An average of 60 Illinois lives have been lost to the virus each day over the past week, a rate that has doubled in a month and is now at the highest point seen since Groundhog Day of 2021.

It’s still not as bad as mid-December 2020, when the state was averaging more than 140 deaths per day.

This image from undated video shows set-up for the Cook County Medical Examiner’s surge center in Chicago to handle the influx of COVID-19 cases in May of 2020.
This image from undated video shows set-up for the Cook County Medical Examiner’s surge center in Chicago to handle the influx of COVID-19 cases in May of 2020.
Office of Cook County Board President via AP

But experts consider COVID-19 deaths a “lagging indicator” of the pandemic because it takes several weeks for them to rise after a spike in cases and hospitalizations. Those figures are at record highs statewide and have shown no sign of slowing down.

For the third time in a week, Illinois set a pandemic record Wednesday with 32,279 new COVID-19 cases as the Omicron variant and unvaccinated residents stretch hospitals to the limit statewide.

The latest all-time high case count almost doubles the height of the state’s previous coronavirus apex, which topped out at 17,608 cases on Nov. 5, 2020, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

New COVID-19 deaths by day

Graphic by Jesse Howe and Caroline Hurley | Sun-Times

Source: Illinois Department of Public Health

Graph not displaying properly? Click here.

Over the past week, the state has averaged more than 25,000 cases per day, a figure that does not include at-home tests. That’s roughly the equivalent of the population of suburban Melrose Park testing positive each day.

Setting yet another record, hospitals were treating 6,842 patients across Illinois Tuesday night, nearly 700 more than were admitted at the height of the state’s previous worst surge. More than 90% of new admissions are unvaccinated residents, public health officials have said.

More than 1,100 patients were admitted to intensive care units, which are 91% full across the state, but stretched even thinner in some regions. Six ICU beds were available for all of Will and Kankakee counties.

In this photo from December 2020, a health care worker at Mount Sinai Hospital receives one of the hospital’s first 975 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
In this photo from December 2020, a health care worker at Mount Sinai Hospital receives one of the hospital’s first 975 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Officials are begging more residents to get vaccinated and boosted to ease the burden on hospitals. While Omicron is causing more breakthrough cases, less than a tenth of a percent of fully vaccinated Illinoisans have ended up in a hospital with COVID.

About 23% of residents 5 or older still haven’t gotten a shot.

The virus has claimed at least 28,156 Illinois lives over the past 22 months. That’s about 43 deaths per day throughout the pandemic.

Cook County accounts for almost half the statewide toll, and Chicago accounts for almost half the county toll. About 80% of Chicago-area victims were 60 or older, according to the medical examiner.

Vaccines are free at pharmacies nationwide, and the city also offers free in-home vaccination appointments. For more information, visit chicago.gov/covidvax or call (312) 746-4835.