Video: Dr. John Segreti of Rush University Medical Center and Dr. Rachel Rubin of the Cook County Department of Public Health join “Chicago Tonight” to discuss the latest COVID-19 guidelines. (Produced by Acacia Hernandez)
With cases of COVID-19 skyrocketing and hospitalizations surging in Illinois, officials are pleading with unvaccinated residents to change their minds about receiving shots.
“We don’t have to continue to lose people,” said Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, speaking at a news conference Monday afternoon. “We’re not in the same place we were a year ago. We have a vaccine.”
And yet Dec. 23, Illinois reported the highest number of people testing positive for the coronavirus since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. Due to delays in data reporting over the holiday weekend, Ezike warned people to brace for “eye-popping” numbers later this week — figures that don’t even include the tests people take at home.
Hospital admissions are approaching 500 a day for COVID patients, she said, and are draining resources. Unvaccinated people make up the vast majority of people being hospitalized, she said.
Ezike was joined by health care executives representing hospitals across the state, all reporting spikes in critical COVID patients and exhausted staff.
“We’re really up against it,” said Rex Budde, CEO at Southern Illinois Healthcare. “People are dying from this virus that don’t need to die. Staff is worn-out — we’ve been at this for two years. If you haven’t been touched by COVID, you will be.”
Colleen Kannaday, president of Carle BroMenn Medical Center and Carle Eureka Hospital in central Illinois, said she worried such sobering news from health officials was becoming “white noise” to the general population.
“It’s very real to our staff,” she said. During daily check-ins with her team, Kannaday heard stories like the one from a nurse who’d had to set up a video call between a COVID patient in her 40s, about to be placed on a ventilator, with the woman’s husband and children, the children sitting in front of their Christmas tree, having to say goodbye to their mother.
As New Year’s Eve approaches, Ezike told everyone to expect uninvited guests at their gatherings: delta and omicron, the virus variants currently circulating in the state. Word that omicron seems to be less lethal is no reason for people to let down their guard, Ezike said, especially given that delta is still the prevalent strain in Illinois.
“Omicron and delta are coming to your party, so you need to think twice,” said Gov. J.B. Pritzker. “People obviously should take extra care.”
While applauding steps taken by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who both announced proof of vaccination requirements after the New Year in certain settings, Pritzker said he was, for the moment, leaving such decisions to local leaders.
The best forms of protection, particularly when a large group gathers indoors, remain the same: Get vaccinated, get a booster shot, wear a mask and maintain social distance, officials said.
“Please, please, please wear your mask,” Pritzker said, adding that as “awful” as the situation is in Illinois, it would be “much, much worse” if a mask mandate weren’t in place.
To those relying on rapid tests to determine the safety of any given situation, Ezike had a word of caution: “That test, even if it’s negative, is only speaking for that day.” It should not be considered a blanket “all’s clear” for the following days or weeks, she said.
Ezike also addressed the issue of breakthrough cases, which has fueled vaccine resistance among the already hesitant. No vaccine is 100% effective, she said, but even with breakthrough cases, the vaccine “drastically reduces” a person’s chance of becoming seriously ill or dying.
“Let’s prevent the preventable,” she said.
To cope with the surge, Illinois is expanding pop-up testing sites, operating state testing sites six days a week as of Jan. 3 and pushing vaccinations deeper into communities versus large mass vaccination sites, Pritzker said.
“What kind of year 2022 turns out to be depends on all of us doing what is best for all of us,” the governor said.