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Illinois tops 2,000 coronavirus cases again, but Pritzker says ‘game-changing’ new U. of I. test offers hope

Illinois has averaged more than 1,800 new COVID-19 cases per day over the last two weeks, nearly triple the rate in mid-June.

Nurse Jeanette Averett delivers dinner trays in the COVID-19 unit at Roseland Community Hospital on the Far South Side in April.
Nurse Jeanette Averett delivers dinner trays in the COVID-19 unit at Roseland Community Hospital on the Far South Side in April.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Illinois’ coronavirus climb took another dangerous step up Wednesday as health officials announced an additional 2,295 Illinoisans have contracted COVID-19, the latest nearly three-month high for the state.

The newest cases were confirmed among a record-high 50,299 tests reported to the state, but they were still enough to raise Illinois’ testing positivity rate over the last week to 4.4%, the number experts watch to gauge how quickly the virus is spreading. It had been down to 2.5% last month.

That prompted Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike to issue their latest warning calls on the state’s rebounding crisis — but the Democratic governor said the state could soon bolster its arsenal in the fight against COVID-19 with a “cutting-edge” new test advancing in development at the University of Illinois.

The saliva-based test is less invasive and could offer results in a matter of hours, allowing the state to “better track and contain the spread of COVID-19,” according to Pritzker, who said it’s still at least a few months away from being widely available.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker removes his face mask before his  COVID-19 briefing at the Thompson Center on Wednesday.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker removes his face mask before his COVID-19 briefing at the Thompson Center on Wednesday.
From BlueRoomStream

The governor’s health team is aiming to quell the state’s rise in cases well before then.

Daily caseloads have surpassed 2,000 on four occasions so far in August, each marking a new high for the state since May 24. The state tallied 2,508 new cases that day, toward the end of the state’s initial pandemic peak.

Cases bottomed out in mid-June as the state reported an average of about 643 new cases per day between June 8-21.

The state’s daily case rate is now almost triple that figure over the last two weeks, as Illinois has reported an average of 1,816 new cases per day from Aug. 6 through Wednesday.

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“In March, when we started seeing evidence of just how deadly this disease could be, we did what we had to do — we stayed home,” Ezike said. “We’re now in August and people are tired. They’re tired of staying home, they’re tired of wearing face coverings, but again, as I’ve said, the virus is not tired. This virus didn’t change. Its tactics are the same, and its practices are the same. But we can’t change ours.”

Ezike also announced virus has killed 25 more residents, raising the state’s pandemic death toll to 7,806 over a five-month period.

The virus preys on older people with underlying health conditions, but among its latest victims, it claimed the lives of a Cook County man in his 20s and a downstate St. Clair County man in his 30s.

Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike speaks at a COVID-19 briefing downtown on Wednesday.
Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike speaks at a COVID-19 briefing downtown on Wednesday.
BlueRoom Stream video

St. Clair is in the Metro East region now facing stricter business regulations imposed by state health officials due to a testing positivity rate that has jumped to 9.5%. Pritzker has said full-blown business shutdowns could be in order for the region if that number isn’t harnessed below 8% within the next two weeks.

Some far southwest suburbs are also flirting with the 8% positivity rate that would trigger a state intervention, as the Kankakee-Will County region is now up to 7.2%. The state health department put Will on notice last week as one of 14 “warning level counties” due to outbreaks from large gatherings and other risky behavior.

The southern Illinois region has also floated near that line in recent weeks, though it dropped a notch Wednesday to 7.1%.

Chicago has held steady at 5.1%, compared to 6.4% in suburban Cook County. Seven of the state’s 11 regions have seen overall increases during the last week.

Of the nearly 3.5 million people in Illinois who have been tested for the coronavirus, 211,889 have received positive results. That’s about 1.7% of the state’s 12.7 million population.

And the saliva-based U. of I. test could soon take the state’s testing capacity to new heights.

U. of I. researchers were granted emergency-use authorization by the federal Food and Drug Administration to run the test at the school’s Urbana-Champaign Lab.

“This has potentially game-changing implications for our statewide testing complex, as well as for testing on a national level, particularly for our high-risk communities and settings,” Pritzker said. “We’re already working to deploy this to more public universities across the state over the next weeks and months, and exploring rolling this out to do testing, potentially, for K-12 schools, and even more testing at our long-term care facilities as well.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker delivers a COVID-19 briefing at the Thompson Center on Wednesday.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker delivers a COVID-19 briefing at the Thompson Center on Wednesday.
From BlueRoomStream.

Professor Martin Burke, associate dean for research at the Carle Illinois College of Medicine on the U of I campus, wouldn’t offer a timeline for when the test could roll out widely, but said “we are fully committed to everything we can to try to work together to make that happen as soon as possible.

“I want to point out this only works if everyone continues to do their part,” Burke said, by wearing face coverings, maintaining social distance and washing hands.

As of Tuesday night, 1,519 Illinois coronavirus patients were hospitalized, with 334 in intensive care units and 144 on ventilators.