More than 1 in 7 Illinoisans have gotten a COVID-19 booster shot, in a vaccination push that continues as a new variant arrives in the U.S. and an old one fuels a hospitalization spike among the unvaccinated that rivals the worst of the pandemic.
In all, about 1.9 million Illinois residents have been boosted, a number that shot up from 1.5 million less than two weeks ago, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration opened boosters to all adults.
Illinois now ranks 17th in the nation for its percentage of all residents who’ve received boosters, which is nearly 15%, according to the CDC. Of Illinois adults eligible for boosters — namely those who are at least six months past their second doses of Moderna or Pfizer or two months past their Johnson & Johnson shot — about 37% have gotten boosters.
It’s still unknown how effective the vaccines will be against the new omicron variant. The CDC reported Wednesday that the first U.S. case of COVID-19 caused by the omicron variant had been confirmed in California. In that case, the individual was fully vaccinated and had recently returned from South Africa.
But local and national health leaders are urging all eligible adults to get boosters now, in case they offer protection against omicron and to help blunt a current surge in Illinois caused largely by the delta variant, which the vaccines do protect against.
State health officials on Wednesday reported 6,119 new confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19, the most in a single day since mid-January, when last fall’s massive surge was still subsiding.
And a Tribune analysis shows this surge is predominantly felt by the unvaccinated, more so than at any point since mass vaccination began. In the most recent week ending Wednesday, those who weren’t fully vaccinated were being admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 at a rate of 38 per 100,000 residents. That’s higher than the peak of the fall 2020 surge, when no one was vaccinated, and the weekly admittance rate topped out at 35 per 100,000 residents.
For those fully vaccinated, the weekly admittance rate has hovered between 1 and 4 people per 100,000 residents during both surges since this summer.
The state does not offer more precise data on hospitalizations for those who’ve gotten booster shots, but public health advocates have said the shots further limit the chance an infection will lead to serious illness.
On Monday, the CDC strengthened its position on boosters, urging all adults to get them, citing the emergence of the omicron variant.
“It’s still one of the few things people can do to protect themselves and family members and their community against COVID-19,” said Dr. Neil Gupta, chief medical officer of the medical group at Loyola Medicine, of getting boosters. “It’s a very low risk thing to get a booster. It’s extremely safe. It’s still a very effective thing against the more common variants now in the U.S.”
Though vaccinated people are far less likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than unvaccinated people, the vaccines’ protection against COVID-19 does seem to wane over time.
“The boosters give you pretty dramatic boosts in your antibody levels quickly,” said Dr. Mia Taormina, chair of the department of infectious disease at Duly Health and Care, formerly named DuPage Medical Group. “If we have a scenario where the existing vaccines have some protection against omicron, more antibody is going to be better than less antibody.”
Walgreens, which is vaccinating people at hundreds of stores across Illinois, has seen high demand for boosters and COVID-19 vaccines in general over the past two weeks, said spokeswoman Kris Lathan in an email. She said that demand is likely due to the federal government opening boosters to all adults, holiday gatherings and the omicron news.
Esperanza Health Centers, which has been a vaccination leader on Chicago’s South and West sides, is also seeing high but steady demand for boosters, said Veronica Flores Diaz, COVID-19 manager for the health centers.
Esperanza administered about 9,000 vaccines in November, including 4,135 boosters, she said. Flores Diaz expects demand to climb as omicron spreads in the U.S.
“Soon, I’m pretty sure more people are going to be wanting their boosters,” she said.
Taormina, with Duly Health and Care, said Duly saw an increase in demand for boosters before Thanksgiving, as people prepared to travel and gather with loved ones. She said Duly has seen a wave of demand each time the federal government has opened up boosters to more people.
“The holidays, the fact that every adult is eligible, the fact we have a new strain — all of that is going to drive a desire for booster vaccines,” Taormina said.
Loyola Medicine has seen steady demand for boosters ever since they were initially authorized, Gupta said. Loyola is now administering about 1,100 shots a week — about double the number it was giving before boosters and shots for kids ages 5 to 11 were approved.
But, within Illinois, demand for boosters varies by region, as has demand for the initial vaccinations. The state health department divides Illinois into 11 health regions, and state data shows higher booster rates in suburban Chicago regions and lower rates downstate.
In the region covering DuPage and Kane counties, as of Tuesday, 55% of residents 65 and older had gotten a booster shot, based on a Tribune analysis of state and census data. That leads the state, followed by Lake and McHenry counties (51%) and suburban Cook County (47%). Chicago’s rate — 38% — trails all but one region: Illinois’ southern tip, with 35% of senior citizens having received a booster shot so far.
A far smaller percentage of younger adults have gotten a booster shot. And of those who have, the geographic differences remain notable.
At most, 15% of all those ages 18 to 64 have gotten a booster shot, and that’s in regions covering suburban Cook, DuPage and Kane counties. Chicago isn’t far behind, at 13%, while the south region trails all others, at 7% of those 18-64 getting a shot, according to the analysis.
Younger adults generally were vaccinated later than senior citizens, and many younger adults only recently qualified under the CDC’s expanded definition of those eligible for booster shots.
But state data show the average pace of booster shots lessened during the holiday week. After peaking above 40,000 shots a day, the latest seven-day average has dropped below 30,000 a day.
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