SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Department of Public Health on Tuesday reported zero deaths from COVID-19 were recorded on Monday — the first time the state has seen no COVID deaths in nearly 16 months.
That figure is subject to change if IDPH receives supplementary reports of COVID deaths from Monday, but state leaders cheered the news Tuesday as evidence vaccines are working; nearly 70% of Illinoisans 12 and over who are eligible for their COVID shots have gotten at least one dose.
“Thank God for the vaccines,” Gov. JB Pritzker said Tuesday after signing a new law expanding Medicaid coverage in Illinois. “We need everybody to get vaccinated. Saying that getting 70% of our [eligible] population vaccinated is a big milestone. But it’s not enough.”
IDPH hadn’t reported daily COVID death numbers over the holiday weekend, so as the agency reported a zero-death day Monday, it also reported 16 deaths from the virus in the 24-hour period between noon Monday and noon on Tuesday. Since Illinois reported its first death in mid-March of last year, 23,272 Illinoisans have died from COVID and IDPH lists another 2,455 residents as “probable’ COVID deaths.
The state’s COVID death rate has dramatically slowed, though, along with new cases and hospitalizations — a cause for celebration after more than a year of daily reports filled with devastating news. Pritzker moved Illinois to a full economic reopening nearly a month ago, and many residents and businesses have eschewed masks as life begins to feel more normal.
However, Pritzker said Illinoisans still need to be wary, and urged those who remain unvaccinated to get their shots as soon as possible, as the state begins to see its COVID cases overtaken by the so-called Delta variant. The Delta variant is the latest, more infectious strain of COVID, first found in India earlier this spring as that country experienced a devastating surge that overwhelmed its health system.
The Delta variant is believed to be about 50% more transmissible than the B.1.1.7 variant that originated in the U.K. late last year, which itself was about 50% more contagious than the original COVID strain that rose up in Wuhan, China. The Delta variant is also reportedly more deadly.
“The Delta variant gets people sicker faster,” Pritzker said. “And that’s very disconcerting. But…if you’re vaccinated, you’ve very well protected.”
In the U.S., Illinois’ neighbor to the west, Missouri, is currently seeing the highest per-capita COVID infection rates in the nation, driven by that Delta variant. And Illinois’ three EMS regions that border Missouri are seeing an uptick in test positivity as well.
The Metro East’s 7-day average test positivity rate reached 5.1% as of June 3, the latest date made available by IDPH. The region’s test positivity rate has been climbing for two weeks, and has now reached positivity rates it hasn’t experienced since February. In contrast, the city of Chicago’s 7-day average COVID test positivity rate currently stands at 0.5%, after reaching a low of 0.3% early last week.
The Southern Illinois and West Central Illinois regions have also seen sharp rises in their COVID test positivity rates in the last week.
IDPH last week reported 85 known cases have been identified in an outbreak a Christian summer camp in Rushville in western Illinois. At least one unvaccinated young adult was also hospitalized, according to the agency.
Infections stemming from the camp — held in mid-June — are mostly among the teen campers. Though all campers and staff were eligible for vaccines, the state’s health department said very few actually had their shots, and the camp didn’t require masking while indoors.
Pritzker last week said the state is working with the CDC to identify whether any of the cases at the camp are due to the Delta variant.
Counties with some of the lowest vaccination rates are in those three regions — especially Alexander County, which has lagged behind the rest of the state since vaccines began rolling out in December. Only 14.6% of Alexander County’s residents of all ages are fully vaccinated, compared with the entire state’s 48.9% vaccination rate.
Vaccine uptake has slowed to a crawl in recent weeks. Before the holiday weekend, the state was averaging a little more than 34,000 shots distributed every day; that figure has taken a nosedive after the Fourth of July, though it’s likely to ramp back up now that the holiday is over.
Alexander County’s county seat, Cairo, is not only the southernmost tip of Illinois, but also one of the poorest parts of the state, with a population that is estimated at two-thirds Black. Pritzker and members of his administration have repeatedly said they’ve made overcoming vaccine hesitancy in Black communities a priority, but it’s proven to be a challenge in Alexander County.