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Death toll expected to spike following Illinois’ rise in coronavirus cases: ‘We’re heading for another surge’

A rise in coronavirus cases in Illinois over the last month has not been accompanied by a rise in deaths. That’ll change soon, experts say.

Nurse practitioner Capri Reese, left, watches the monitor while respiratory therapist Khafran Alshahin performs chest compressions on an 80-year-old man who ultimately died from COVID-19 at Roseland Community Hospital in April.
Nurse practitioner Capri Reese, left, watches the monitor for a heart rhythm while respiratory therapist Khafran Alshahin performs chest compressions on an 80-year-old man who ultimately died from COVID-19 at Roseland Community Hospital in April. Respiratory therapists Dennis Kelly and Malcolm Love, right, also look at the monitor.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

As Gov. J.B. Pritzker and health officials sound the alarm on a rise in coronavirus cases, one look at a graph of the state’s COVID-19 deaths reported per day could easily give the false impression that Illinois’ pandemic curve has flattened.

Don’t be fooled, experts say — more deaths are looming.

“In the next two to four weeks, we’re really going to start seeing the effects,” University of Chicago epidemiologist Dr. Emily Landon said. “We just started seeing an increase in patients in the hospital in the last week and a half. Deaths come into the picture a couple of weeks after that.”

That means the worst could be yet to come, as the Illinois Department of Public Health on Tuesday reported the latest 1,471 cases of the disease, marking two straight weeks with four-digit daily caseloads.

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Illinois has averaged about 1,500 new cases per day over those two weeks — almost double the daily case average in June — but the 19 latest COVID-19 deaths reported Tuesday are just slightly above the average of 17 deaths per day during that time frame.

It takes some time for deaths to catch up to case trends in either direction. When Illinois’ coronavirus curve hit a valley with just 473 new cases reported June 15, the state still averaged about 42 deaths per day for the following two weeks, including 84 on June 17.

The time between coronavirus infection and death typically ranges from two to five weeks, according to Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director of Northwestern University’s Institute of Global Health.

After a person contracts the virus, it can take about a week to feel symptoms, another week for those symptoms to worsen to the point the person needs to be hospitalized, and another week for the person to die.

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Lengthening the delay between a rise in cases and a rise in deaths is the fact that most of Illinois’ uptick has been traced to young people, aged 29 or younger. They’re much less likely to suffer severe symptoms or require a hospital bed — but are much more likely to spread the virus to older, more vulnerable people who will.

“Right now we’re looking at lots of outbreaks at parties, weddings, graduation ceremonies and other big gatherings of young people. Those cases are not likely to end up in the hospital,” Landon said. “The first wave of people do just fine, but they pass it on. That gives you a bigger lag time.”

There was hardly any lag time at the onset of the pandemic in March and April, when cases and deaths in Illinois seemingly skyrocketed in tandem because people weren’t being tested until they needed a hospital bed, Landon said.

The state’s testing capacity has increased dramatically since then, with 42,598 test results reported Tuesday lowering the state’s rolling positivity rate over the last week a notch to 3.9%.

At the height of Illinois’ COVID-19 impact, about 100 people were dying per day in Mid-May, with a record-high 192 deaths reported May 13.

Dr. Emily Landon of the University of Chicago.
Dr. Emily Landon, executive medical director for infection prevention and control at University of Chicago Medicine.
Cortesía

The state’s death toll has since climbed to 7,545, among almost 185,000 people who have tested positive.

Still, the recovery rate in Illinois is 95%.

Murphy noted that “doctors understand this disease much better now and are more capable of treating it,” specifically with two proven options that have improved survival rates: remdesivir and dexamethasone.

Landon agreed “the people who get sick today are less likely to die than people in March. But that doesn’t mean it’ll be immediately obvious in the number of deaths.”

Doctors and nurses tend to a woman suffering from COVID-19 at Roseland Community Hospital on the Far South Side in April.
Doctors and nurses tend to a woman suffering from COVID-19 at Roseland Community Hospital on the Far South Side in April.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

The state could stave off a death spike if residents — especially young people — adhere to the public health tenets of wearing face masks, maintaining social distance, washing hands and avoiding gatherings.

Getting that message across has been a heavy lift for Pritzker’s office.

“I think we’re heading for another surge. These numbers aren’t going to go away on their own,” Landon said.

As of Monday night, 1,496 Illinois coronavirus patients were hospitalized, with 365 in intensive care units and 125 on ventilators.