With the major traveling holidays firmly in the rear view mirror, Illinois’ count of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations remains on the decline since hitting its peak of its second wave in early November.
But as vaccines slowly become available to certain essential workers and those aged 65 and older, there remain questions of what the next few months will look like — and whether the state can maintain its steady decline.
Gov. JB Pritzker lifted bans on indoor dining and drinking a week ago, and allowed youth sports to resume, though did so with the caveat that the pandemic is “at its worst” in places outside of the state.
“Let’s not let our guard down,” Pritzker said. “With cautious behavior, we can keep people healthy and power through these final months of the pandemic together.”
Illinois COVID-related hospitalizations, its positivity rate and number of daily cases have all been cut in half compared to where the state was at the beginning of November. As of Friday, 4,156 new cases were identified in the past 24 hours with 2,735 individuals in a hospital for COVID-19. Over the past seven days, 5.4% of those tested were positive — the lowest positivity rate since mid-October.
Comparatively, the state routinely saw daily caseloads of more than 10,000 through November. As those case numbers rose, so too did deaths. A month later, Illinois saw more than 100 of its residents succumb to the coronavirus most days in December, including a grim milestone of seeing two 24-hour periods in which more than 200 deaths were reported.
One of the state’s top epidemiologists, with whom Pritzker has consulted, said Illinois’ trendlines offer real glimmers of hope — but warned the emergence of new more contagious strains of COVID-19 represent a real unknown.
Public health officials are concerned a more infectious variant of COVID-19, first discovered in the U.K. will become the dominant strain of the virus in Illinois by March. It will require the continuation of mitigations, including limiting crowd sizes and mask wearing while in public, they say.
“Looking at the situation right now in Illinois, I would say we are in great shape. Things are looking really good,” said Dr. Emily Landon, executive medical director of Infection Prevention and Control at the University of Chicago Medical Center.
“The numbers are coming down for hospitalizations. The number of cases are coming down. The numbers for deaths are coming down. And many of the counties are moving into sort of less restrictive tiers of mitigation, and the vaccines are rolling out and all of those things are really positive,” she said. “There are some ominous signs on the horizon with these new variants, so I think we should take advantage of the positive trend that we’ve got going on right now.”
The decline in cases comes as Illinois is increasing its vaccinations, albeit at a slower pace than desired.
On Friday, the state announced 58,357 vaccinations had been administered in the previous 24 hours, a single day record for Illinois to date. Though public officials have warned those who are now eligible to receive a vaccine to be patient, as the federal government’s supply of vaccine remains far below demand.
CVS and Walgreens, under much criticism for their slow process in vaccinating long term care residents under a federal program, have assured Pritzker they will have given the first dose of the vaccine to those residents by Feb. 15.
Pritzker himself has been criticized by Illinois’ state senate Republicans who point to data from The New York Times showing Illinois is one of the slowest states in the country to administer vaccines.
“With all due respect, blaming the previous president, the federal government and CVS/Walgreens simply will not suffice,” the Senate Republicans wrote in a joint letter to Pritzker this week.
But even with the state’s most vulnerable residents being vaccinated, public health officials are still warning that another wave of the pandemic could be right around the corner.
The respected University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which has done COVID-19 modeling, forecasts that Illinois could see its COVID-19 death toll jump 34% by May 1, reaching nearly 25,600 virus-related fatalities.
But Landon said a spike of 6,000-plus deaths in Illinois in three months isn’t a certainty, particularly if the state’s residents are vigorous in wearing protective masks and maintaining proper social distancing as vaccinations continue and limit the virus’ spread.
“The mathematical models say it’s possible, but they also say it’s not inevitable — so I would say that we’re at an inflection point,” she said.
Looking forward, Landon said she sees a summer in Chicago where the city begins to regain a sense of normalcy.
“Oh, I think it’s going to be great in July. I think there’s a small, outside chance that these new variants come in, that we can’t get people vaccinated, that the vaccines just don’t perform as well as we thought they would as these variants take over. That would be a really pessimistic view. I don’t think that’s what’s going to happen.
“I think that the vaccination rate growing in the city will really help to provide a big barrier to transmission. I think there probably will be some people in the summer who are getting COVID. I think there will be some issues with people having severe disease. But I think as we get more and more people vaccinated, there will be less and less opportunity for the disease to spread around.”
She said: “I suspect we’ll be able to see some of those things coming back that we used to like to do: street parties, and things like that where you can gather but maybe with masks. I’m looking forward to a summer looking really different than it used to look last year.”