Illinois is still setting records for new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, and with coronavirus-related deaths reaching levels not seen in nearly a year, the state’s top public health official said Wednesday it’s too soon to say whether the latest omicron-driven surge has peaked.
Despite a small dip in the number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals statewide as of Tuesday night compared with the previous day, the seven-day average increased to 7,173 patients per day, the highest level at any time during the pandemic.
“You really want to see a consistent decline,” Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, said during a news conference at the James R. Thompson Center in the Loop. “I will be the first to announce it when we can say that pretty confidently — cross my fingers and toes, but I just don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.”
Ezike joined Gov. J.B. Pritzker in reiterating the importance of vaccinations, booster shots and masks in slowing the latest trend, which is putting major stress on hospitals across Illinois.
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“I can’t say enough about how extraordinary our hospitals and our health care heroes have been throughout this pandemic, but specifically in the present moment, when exhaustion and long hours greet them every single day,” Pritzker said.
The governor highlighted his administration’s efforts to help hospitals meet their staffing needs as exposures and infections sideline health care workers and others leave the profession due to burnout or other factors.
Through existing state contracts, the state is helping deploy more than 2,000 health care workers in an effort to ease the burden on overstretched hospitals, including nearly 600 as part of “COVID reaction teams to respond quickly to emerging crises at hospitals and other health care facilities,” the governor said.
With COVID-19 hospitalizations at record levels and only about 9% of staffed intensive care beds available statewide, Ezike painted a dire picture of the challenges facing hospitals and those who need urgent medical treatment.
“We’re making it difficult for people who are having a heart attack, who end up in a car crash, have their appendix burst, have a cancer-related complication — any kind of medical emergency — we’re threatening the ability of those people to get the care they need,” she said.
The latest surge in the pandemic is once again disrupting the operations of state government, with the Democratic leaders of the Illinois House and Senate on Wednesday announcing the cancellation of next week’s scheduled session days in Springfield.
And late Tuesday, the Illinois Department of Corrections said it was suspending inmate transfers from county jails as cases rise once again inside state prisons.
State health officials on Wednesday reported 34,573 new confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 across Illinois, bringing the average number of new daily cases to 32,501 over the past week, yet another record.
But the growth in cases hasn’t been as rapid in recent days. Wednesday’s average was up about 29% from the week ending Jan. 5. From the week ending Dec. 29 to the week ending Jan. 5, the average number of new daily cases increased by nearly 51%.
Statewide, there’s also been a recent slowdown in the average number of new patients being admitted to hospitals with COVID-19-like illness.
While the highly contagious omicron variant has proved more able to strike people who have been fully vaccinated but have not received a booster shot, more than 80% of COVID-19 patients in Illinois hospitals are unvaccinated, Ezike said.
And although omicron generally has produced milder symptoms, coronavirus-related deaths are on the rise in the state.
The state on Wednesday reported an additional 144 fatalities, bringing the average number of deaths to 93 per day over the past week, the highest level since the week ending Jan. 16, 2021. At that time, vaccines were just being distributed to the public and were not yet widely available.
Ezike and other health officials have stressed that many of the hospitalizations and deaths occurring now could have been prevented if patients had gotten vaccinated.
As of Wednesday, the statewide death toll stood at 28,804 since the pandemic began, with 887 recorded since the start of the new year.