‘Relentless’ roller coaster: COVID-19 subvariants put Chicago area at high risk level — again

With transmission considered medium or high in 94 Illinois counties, residents are being urged to mask up when gathering indoors in 92% of the state.

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Respiratory therapist Jean Joseph draws blood from a COVID-19 patient at Roseland Community Hospital in January. COVID hospitalizations are as high as they’ve been across Illinois since February.

Respiratory therapist Jean Joseph draws blood from a COVID-19 patient at Roseland Community Hospital in January. COVID hospitalizations are as high as they’ve been across Illinois since February.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Chicago’s latest roller-coaster COVID-19 summer took another twist Friday as federal health officials upgraded Cook County’s transmission risk back to “high” due to rising case counts and filling hospital beds.

It’s the third time since the Memorial Day weekend that the city and its immediate suburbs have zigzagged between the “medium” and “high” risk categories as determined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But over the past week — with the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants gaining dominance across the Midwest as the most infectious iterations of the virus yet — coronavirus hospitalizations have vaulted in only one direction: up.

More than 1,400 beds were filled with COVID patients statewide Thursday night, the greatest burden hospitals have faced since Feb. 18.

Cook County finds itself back among 50 of the state’s 102 counties where transmission is once again considered high by CDC standards, which factor in average daily case and hospitalization rates. People are urged to mask up when gathering indoors in those counties, which also include most of the collars: McHenry, Lake, DuPage and Will.

But masks are still recommended indoors for Illinois’ 40 additional “medium” risk counties, including Kane, Kankakee and Kendall. That means experts advise masking up in 92% of the state.

COVID-19 transmission is considered high in counties marked orange and medium in those marked yellow.

COVID-19 transmission is considered high in counties marked orange and medium in those marked yellow.

Illinois Department of Public Health

“What we are seeing with this fluctuation from week to week between Medium and High COVID Levels countywide is that COVID-19 is relentless,” Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said in a statement. “It is adaptable and continues to mutate. We have to be just as relentless and unwavering in defending ourselves and our communities against it.”

The latest highly infectious variants are not thought to cause more severe symptoms, and vaccines have still proven to offer significant protection, according to the Cook County Department of Public Health. That’s why the basic pandemic tenets still apply, spokesman Don Bolger said in an email.

All residents are urged to get vaccinated and boosted; socialize outdoors or in areas with strong ventilation; mask up, especially with a stronger KN95 or N95 respirator; get tested before attending gatherings, and reach out to a doctor for treatment as soon as possible after a positive test.

“By following these simple and effective steps, we can ride this wave together,” Bolger said.

It’s a wave that started in the spring and hasn’t hinted at cresting anytime soon.

In late March, Illinois had a seven-day average rate of about 1,100 new cases per day, which shot up to more than 6,200 cases per day by May 19. That case rate fell to about 3,600 by the first week of July, but it’s jumped more than 20% since last week, with more than 4,700 Illinoisans now receiving a positive laboratory result each day. Many thousands of more people are coming down with the virus, since those figures don’t include at-home tests.


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During that case rate roller-coaster ride, COVID hospitalizations climbed steadily to a five-month high. Nightly admissions have nearly tripled from 489 on April 1 to 1,424 as of Thursday night. It’s still not close to the worst days of the pandemic in January, when more than 7,300 COVID patients were hospitalized.

COVID deaths have remained relatively low, with an average of eight residents lost to the virus each day last week.

Health care workers put on new personal protective equipment at Roseland Community Hospital in January. Cases are on the rise in Illinois once again.

Health care workers put on new personal protective equipment at Roseland Community Hospital in January. Cases are on the rise in Illinois once again.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

The virus has claimed more than 34,000 Illinois lives since March 2020, a number that could have been slashed if more people were vaccinated and boosted, experts have long said. Nearly 19% of residents 5 or older still haven’t gotten a single shot.

“We remind Illinoisans that the most important step they can take to protect themselves and their loved ones is to make sure they are up to date with vaccines and booster shots,” acting Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Amaal Tokars said in a statement. “This is especially important for people who are vulnerable to serious medical outcomes.”

Despite the troubling numbers, don’t expect Gov. J.B. Pritzker to step up COVID-19 mitigation efforts anytime soon. The Democratic governor — in the middle of a reelection campaign against state Sen. Darren Bailey, a downstate Republican who made a name for himself fighting Pritzker’s early pandemic restrictions — announced earlier this week that he’s lifting a vaccine mandate for students and faculty at colleges and other higher education institutions, which can still impose their own mandates.

Pritzker called it part of his plan “to carefully unwind” COVID restrictions while pushing for vaccination.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at a briefing in 2020.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at a briefing in 2020.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

“I continue to urge all Illinoisans to make sure they’re up to date on their COVID-19 vaccine to ensure the most at-risk populations and those unable to be vaccinated are protected from the serious side effects of this disease,” Pritzker said in a statement.

“As we continue to move toward living with this virus, my administration will relax some requirements while continuing to protect the most vulnerable and ensuring we can get every federal dollar our residents are eligible to receive.”

Shots are readily available for all residents 6 months or older. For help finding one, visit vaccines.gov.

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