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With 70% of Illinois adults vaccinated against COVID-19, state watches Delta variant

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Dr. Anthony Fauci says the highly-contagious Delta variant is now the greatest threat in the U.S. to eliminating the virus. Research suggests vaccinations are effective against it.

Two weeks ago, Illinois celebrated a major accomplishment in its fight against COVID-19 — the lifting of restrictions that limited capacity in businesses, restaurants and at major events.

This came about thanks to the vaccination program in Illinois, one that has seen the state provide more than 12 million doses of the vaccine and fully vaccinate over 6 million people. Cases have gone down to their lowest levels since the beginning of the pandemic, with a case positivity rate below 1%.

Last week, the state hit another big vaccination milestone when it became the first state in the Midwest to hit President Joe Biden's goal of having 70% of all adults aged 18 and older receive at least one dose of the vaccine by July 4. As of Friday, Illinois has provided at least one dose to 6,982,055 people, reaching 70.9% of people statewide with one dose of either the two-shot Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Everything seems to be moving forward in normal fashion, but medical experts, including Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, have warned people that COVID-19 is not a thing of the past.

"It is important to remember that we are still in a world pandemic," Ezike said June 10, just one day before the state reopened in full. "The virus can continue to spread among unvaccinated individuals, which could lead to additional mutations and new, more virulent variants."

Ngozi Ezike

Ezike

Those virulent variants may be beginning to cause havoc in Illinois. The Alpha variant from the United Kingdom caused a small surge in cases in the spring, but it fizzled out thanks to vaccinations.

Now comes another threat: the Delta variant, coming from India, home to a massive outbreak in the spring that caused the deaths of thousands of people across the subcontinent. Delta is considered to be 2-3 times more contagious than other variants and is already causing problems in the U.S., with Missouri in particular seeing an uptick in cases in areas with low vaccination rates.

What could this mean for Illinois? Much like other states, while Illinois has crossed the 70% threshold when it comes to getting at least one shot into adults, it hasn't done enough to reach herd immunity with 47.26% of the population being vaccinated. That is well below the 70-80% mark most medical professionals feel is needed to protect the broader population from outbreaks.

Dr. Vidya Sundereshan, chief of the Infectious Diseases division at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine and the medical adviser for the Sangamon County Department of Public Health, said a Delta variant-fueled outbreak is something the state should try to avoid through continued vaccination.

"That's why getting vaccinated and getting those numbers up high is so important," Sundereshan said. "There's definitely a chance (of an outbreak if) there's a higher number of people unvaccinated."

She says that the key to preventing another surge in the coming months will be to continue to vaccinate and get to herd immunity, pointing to examples from highly vaccinated states like Connecticut as an example of the ability of the shots to tamp down outbreaks.

"Even though the number is lower, if you have a lot of people vaccinated, you have that herd immunity protection to some extent," Sundereshan said. "Breakthroughs happen in (mostly) people who are immunocompromised (or the) elderly. We know that the antibody response from vaccination is lasting for at least 8-9 months."

For those who are vaccinated, Sundereshan says that there's little reason to worry. She cites studies stating that two-shot vaccines like the Pfizer jab work well against the variants as reason to not worry too much about potential breakthrough Delta cases in vaccinated people.

"The (Pfizer) vaccine can protect (people) up to 88%," Sundereshan said. "It's a little bit less than the other variants, but the data says that it is effective."

Illinois does enter the fight against the Delta variant in good position, with cases remaining low over the past week. IDPH reported 1,744 new cases this week with 66 deaths. The case positivity rate continues to remain at a low point, staying at 0.8%, with the rate as a percentage of tests staying at 0.6%. In terms of the Delta variant, the state has reported 84 total cases so far.

The state crossed the six million mark in people fully vaccinated Friday, with 6,021,634 people being fully vaccinated statewide. However, daily vaccination rates are seeing lows not seen since the winter. IDPH reported an average of 28,798 doses per day administered in the last week, the lowest mark since Jan. 24. The state has provided 201,587 doses in the past week, with 12,360,117 being administered overall.


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