The late fall surge in coronavirus cases in Illinois has surpassed the peak of the late summer wave just as the holidays approach.
State health officials on Tuesday reported 4,589 new confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19, bringing the average number of daily cases over the past week to 4,618.
The last surge peaked at 4,440 cases per day during the week ending Sept. 4. The seven-day average dipped as low as 2,069 cases per day in late October before starting to climb once again.
Widely available vaccines should help prevent a repeat of the largest and deadliest surge of the pandemic last fall, when cases peaked at 12,384 per day in mid-November and coronavirus-related deaths peaked at 155 per day in early December. As of Tuesday, the state was averaging 22 deaths per day over the past week.
This year, the fall surge is starting later and rising more gradually, and comes as federal health officials in recent weeks have approved vaccines for children ages 5 to 11 and booster doses for anyone 18 and older.
In the week before Thanksgiving last year, the average number of daily cases was more than 12,000. This fall’s surge began with about the same level of cases as recorded at the start of last year’s, about 2,000 a day. This year’s upswing started about a month later and has yet to top a seven-day average of 5,000 cases a day.
Another big difference between the two surges: By this time last year, the case curve had bent downward. This fall, that has yet to happen.
Along with the increasing number of cases, the number of patients with COVID-19 in hospitals statewide also is again on the rise, though at an average of 1,755 patients per day over the past week, the state is still below the most recent peak of 2,303 patients per day in early September.
The state divides Illinois into 11 health regions, and the most recent data shows the latest surge is far less concentrated Downstate than the previous one.
The summer surge hit most regions outside Chicago harder than the city or its suburbs, after adjusting figures for population differences among the regions. One exception was the North region, a section of Illinois west of the Chicago area.
But the North region is leading the latest surge, with an average daily rate of hospitalizations of 23.7 per 100,000 residents. The rate is still far lower than the South region’s peak daily hospitalization rate during the summer surge, which topped 40 per 100,000 residents.
In October, roughly 28% of cases were among the fully vaccinated — those who received one shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or a second shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines at least two weeks earlier, according to state health officials. But most recent state data shows a widening difference in the hospitalization rate between those who are fully vaccinated and those who aren’t.
In three weeks, the weekly hospital admittance rate for those not fully vaccinated rose from less than 13 per 100,000 to nearly 21.
For those fully vaccinated, regardless of whether they’ve gotten booster shots, the rate has hovered between 3 and 4 per 100,000.
Nearly 58% of Illinois residents are fully vaccinated, including more than 70% of those 12 and older, for whom vaccines have been available for several months.
Since the mass vaccination effort began, the state has seen a drop in the rate of newly detected cases leading to death, from about 12.4 per 1,000 new cases during last fall’s surge, to about 9.2 of every 1,000 new cases during the summer surge, according to Melaney Arnold, a spokeswoman for the state health department.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker hasn’t made any major shifts in his approach to the pandemic since August, when he reinstated a statewide mask mandate for indoor public places and issued vaccinate-or-test requirements for some state workers, school employees and other specific industries.
Last month, Pritzker raised the possibility of lifting “certain mask mandates” in time for the holidays, but cases and hospitalizations stopped dropping soon after that promising statement, and then began their latest ascent.
Pritzker told the Tribune earlier this month that he was “obviously very concerned about increases in cases and hospitalizations.”
“Fortunately, the hospitalization numbers haven’t reached the heights that they were in August,” Pritzker said. “But the whole idea is to avoid them getting there, so I’ll continue to monitor it.”
Asked whether the state is considering any additional steps to slow the surge, Arnold said only that “as we head into the holidays, we continue to stress the importance of precautionary measures.”
“Vaccination is recommended for all 5 years and older and booster shots for adults; masking in indoor public places; testing before and after travel; avoiding crowds,” she said. “Increased vaccinations overall will reduce the amount of virus circulating and decrease case counts.”
The struggle to reach adults who’ve not been fully vaccinated continues. Last week, boosters accounted for 60% of doses administered, with another 14% going to newly eligible 5- to 11-year-olds, Arnold said.
Cases are on the rise nationally, but there has not been a widespread return to capacity limits or other restrictions that characterized earlier phases of the pandemic. There has been a fierce backlash in some European countries where officials have recently reinstated lockdowns to combat rising cases.