For the first time during the pandemic, the daily average number of new statewide COVID-19 cases exceeded 16,000, and Chicago late last week had the highest infection rate in Illinois, according to new figures on Tuesday.
The alarming rise in cases comes as hospitals are seeing more of their spaces occupied with COVID-19 patients. The surge has also prompted officials to caution the public about participating in large gatherings this week for New Year’s Eve.
The daily average of new cases reached 16,040 through Tuesday, largely due to a record number of infections for a single day on Christmas Eve — 21,131 — and 20,804 more cases recorded on Tuesday, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. (The average is based on the total for that day and six prior days.)
The pandemic’s winter surge in Illinois has caused COVID-19-related hospitalizations to climb through December, though not as sharply as the daily tallies of new infections. Monday saw the highest number of hospital patients this month infected with the virus with 5,200, the statistics show. The second highest tally for December was on Sunday with 4,755, and the third highest was 4,425 on Christmas Day.
The average number of hospitalizations, based on the past week, has risen to 4,500, which remains well below the peak average of 6,100 COVID patients during the fall 2020 surge.
Even though COVID-19 hospitalizations may not be at their peak, this surge has come amid shortages of hospital staff and more patients at the hospital for reasons other than coronavirus. That’s left far fewer open beds, particularly in intensive care units.
As of 11:59 p.m. Monday, the latest count published by the state, just five ICU beds were open in the region covering Will and Kankakee counties, which have roughly 800,000 people. Just four beds were open in the North region, an area with about 660,000 residents stretching west from the Chicago area to the Iowa line.
Figures change day to day, so the state takes an average of the percentage of available beds, noting regions’ hospital systems get stressed if the percentage falls below 20%, which has been the case in many regions. In the region covering Will and Kankakee counties, the most recent data showed that just 6% of ICU beds were available, on average.
Tuesday’s 96 COVID-19 deaths were the most recorded in Illinois this month, the statistics also show, though they are far from daily records since the start of the pandemic in March 2020 — a sign that the vaccines have been effective at preventing fatal cases.
The big jump in total cases could be a sign of more testing being done but could also illustrate the impact of viral variants more likely to infect vaccinated people such as delta and omicron — a newer variant that has quickly spread to various parts of the globe.
But what’s unusual about the surge is what’s happening in Chicago in particular, and how people in the city are getting infected with the virus at higher rate than anywhere else in Illinois. According to the data as of Christmas Day, the rate of COVID-19 infection in Chicago was 1,323.3 per 100,000 people, with the second highest rate being suburban Cook County with 1,175.5 per 100,000 people and the Will-Kankakee County region ranking third with 1,056.2 per 100,000.
The last time Chicago had the highest rate of COVID-19 infections was during a surge in spring 2020.
Chicago’s new seven-day average of new cases stood at nearly 3,800 Tuesday — an 85% increase over the prior week, according to city data.
As for vaccinations, more than 8.1 million Illinoisans ages 5 and up are fully vaccinated (the state has more than 12,000,000 people), according to IDPH. A little over 9 million Illinoisans in that age group have at least one inoculation of the vaccine, the public health department said.
On Monday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced the state will more than double its staffing at vaccination sites. More than 100 workers, with help from a state contract with a health care provider, will be sent to regional vaccination sites, he said.
He also announced that free community-based COVID-19 testing will be increased, beginning the week of Jan. 3, by 50% and available six days a week, up from four days a week. While most coronavirus deaths continue to be people who were not vaccinated, officials have repeatedly urged the public to get COVID-19 shots.
“Admittedly, nothing is 100%. No vaccine is 100%,” IDPH’s director, Dr. Ngozi Ezike, said Monday at a Chicago news conference with Pritzker. “But if you can significantly, drastically reduce your chance of being hospitalized, or dying, why wouldn’t you avail yourself of that opportunity?”
“We are also increasing testing and continuing to distribute monoclonal antibodies, antiviral pills and any treatments or personal protective equipment communities need,” Pritzker said in a statement Monday. “I will continue to do everything possible to protect all the people of this state, whatever your vaccine status. But what kind of year 2022 turns out to be depends on all of us doing what is best for all of us.”
To find a vaccine appointment go to the state’s coronavirus website.
Illinois officials on Tuesday also announced new efforts to centralize and speed up contract tracing. As part of that effort, IDPH will begin sending text notifications with a link to all who test positive for COVID-19, which will read: “IDPH COVID: There is important info for you. Call 312-777-1999 or click: https://dph.illinois.gov/covid19/community-guidance/confirmed-or-possible-covid-19.html.”