CHICAGO - A week after Thanksgiving, Illinois on Thursday reported this year’s highest daily total of new coronavirus cases, while COVID-19 hospitalizations have risen higher than any point since last winter.
The 11,524 new confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 reported by the state health department were the most in one day since Dec. 1, 2020, when 12,542 cases were reported. Over the past week, the state has averaged 5,313 daily cases, the highest level since mid-January.
There are number of potential factors contributing to Thursday’s spike. There were roughly twice as many test result reported compared with the recent average, possibly because of lags in reporting over the holiday weekend, Illinois Department of Public Health spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said.
But she added that “we are starting to see cases associated with family gatherings and travel” over the Thanksgiving holiday.
In addition, the state is seeing a high percentage of positive results as a share of total tests. The test positivity rate is approaching 6%, after dropping close to 2% a month earlier, according to a Tribune analysis of state data.
Stark differences can be seen among the 11 regions IDPH has set up to monitor the pandemic. The North region, roughly the part of Illinois west of Chicago and its suburbs, has a positivity rate approaching 10%, while the region for Will and Kankakee counties is near 8%. Chicago remains the lowest, at about 4%.
The high number of new daily cases comes as Illinois prepares for the new omicron variant, first reported last week in southern Africa, and as state and federal officials push people to get COVID-19 vaccine booster shots.
With nearly two-thirds of Illinois residents 5 and older fully vaccinated and a growing portion of the population having received boosters, Gov. J.B. Pritzker reiterated Thursday that his administration’s focus is on the number of COVID-19 patients who end up in the hospital, the overwhelming majority of whom aren’t fully vaccinated.
“I’ve always said that what we’re watching are hospitalizations and the seriousness of illness as well — that’s people going into the hospitals — and then overall capacity in hospitals,” Pritzker said during an unrelated event in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood.
Pritzker said hospitals haven’t been stretched thin enough by the latest surge to require measures such as suspending elective surgeries, which has happened at some hospitals in New York and Pennsylvania.
Yet the higher infection rates have led to busier hospitals. Bed counts can rise and fall by the hour, but at one point Wednesday night, hospitals in Will and Kankakee counties reported that just four of 133 Intensive Care Unit beds were available.
Overall, the latest surge has fueled a rise in hospitalizations that is on pace to be the worst since last fall’s surge, which was the largest and deadliest of the pandemic.
As of Wednesday, 2,537 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Illinois. To put that in perspective, the spring and late-summer surges peaked around 2,300, while last fall’s surge peaked near 6,200.
Hospitalizations are also rising faster during this surge than in the year’s previous waves.
Around Halloween, Illinois hospitals, on average, generally were discharging as many COVID patients as came in. By mid-November, an average of about 30 more COVID patients were arriving each day than were being discharged.
And as of Wednesday, the average had climbed to nearly 80 more patients being admitted than being discharged.
The situation is exacerbated by a nursing shortage across the state and country, which limits hospitals’ ability to staff additional beds.
In the region encompassing Will and Kankakee counties, Amita Health’s hospitals in Joliet and Kankakee haven’t seen their ICUs so full of COVID-19 patients since the early months of the pandemic, said Dr. Kalisha Hill, a regional chief medical officer for Amita.
“We’re very grateful be able to care for our patients that need surgeries, that need cardiac procedures, but we are strained because we have so many unvaccinated, COVID-positive patients in our hospitals,” Hill said. The vast majority of hospitalized patients are unvaccinated, she said.
Chicago reported having only 11% of its ICU beds available as of Wednesday night.
Sinai Chicago, which includes Mount Sinai and Holy Cross hospitals, has been running close to capacity in both the ICU and non-ICU beds, though most of the hospitals’ patients are not there because of COVID-19, said Dr. Russell Fiorella, system chief medical officer.
Sinai has not had to delay elective surgeries at this point, but he said that with so many beds full, patients sometimes have to wait longer in the emergency department before they can be admitted.
Since Thanksgiving, Sinai’s hospitals have seen a slight bump in the number of COVID-19 patients needing hospitalization outside the ICU, he said. He suspects that the Thanksgiving holiday and the travel and parties that accompanied it may be to blame.
But others say it’s hard to know if the higher numbers of COVID-19 cases are because of Thanksgiving gatherings. Elected officials and doctors generally did not discourage people from gathering for Thanksgiving — unlike last year — but instead pleaded with them to take precautions, such as making sure guests were vaccinated, wearing masks and testing for COVID-19 before celebrating.
Spokesmen for Northwestern Medicine and Rush University System for Health said they haven’t seen an influx of patients that could be attributed to Thanksgiving.
In addition to his statewide mask mandate for indoor public places, Pritzker continues pushing for more people to get vaccinated and receive booster doses in hopes of reversing the current trends.
On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strengthened its position on boosters, urging all adults to get them, citing the emergence of the omicron variant.
It’s not yet known how effective the vaccines will be against the omicron variant, but doctors say people should get boosted to protect against the delta strain that’s now dominant in the U.S. and to be ready in case the vaccines are effective against omicron.
At some Walgreens and CVS Health locations in the Chicago area, people are having to wait about two weeks for vaccination appointments.
CVS has the “inventory and capacity to meet COVID-19 vaccine needs, including in areas of high demand” and it encourages people to make appointments online, said spokesman Charlie Rice-Minoso in an email.
At Walgreens, appointment availability varies by store, depending on demand in a particular area, said spokeswoman Kris Lathan, in an email, though she noted there are appointments available for next week.
Pritzker said his office has been in contact with the Biden administration about increasing shipments to the major pharmacy chains, which are supplied directly by the federal government rather than out of the state’s allocation of doses.
“When you all of a sudden are running up against a limit of what they’ve been receiving, we want to see them shipped more, and so we’ve expressed that to the federal government,” Pritzker said.
Many Illinois residents are receiving vaccines in places other than pharmacies, such as at hospitals and community clinics.