Businesses and social gatherings in Illinois are no longer subject to any COVID-related capacity limits as the state enters the long-awaited “Phase Five” of Gov. JB Pritzker’s “Restore Illinois” economic reopening plan on Friday.
Masks are also not required for fully vaccinated Illinoisans, though they're still necessary for settings like public transit and hospitals, and individual businesses reserve the right to require masks for patrons and employees. Pritzker also isn't yet ready to lift the original disaster declaration he made on March 9 of last year as Illinois reported 11 known cases of COVID, as many emergency orders like the state's eviction moratorium are attached to it.
Friday also marks exactly 15 months since the World Health Organization declared the spread of the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, a global pandemic.
On that day, actors Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced they’d contracted COVID-19 and were quarantining in Australia. Just before tipoff in Oklahoma City, officials canceled the regular season NBA game between the Thunder and visiting Utah Jazz. An hour later, the NBA announced it would be suspending the rest of the season.
And in Illinois, Pritzker’s third of what would eventually become more than 100 daily COVID briefings that spring, went from an event for the local press corps to must-see TV as Chicago canceled its St. Patrick’s Day parade, several Illinois universities suspended in-person classes and the legislature postponed its next planned week of session.
On March 11, 2020, Pritzker and Illinois Department of Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike announced there were now 25 known cases of COVID in Illinois, though with testing for the virus so extremely limited, it’s likely there were already dozens, if not hundreds more cases going undetected.
Pritzker took the opportunity to blast then-President Donald Trump and his administration for their shrug-it-off approach to the virus. The day before, Trump told reporters waiting outside a meeting in the U.S. Capitol Building that if Americans “just stay calm,” COVID would “go away.” The day before that, White House officials claimed 1 million Americans would have been tested for the virus by the end of the week, but that number turned out to be only 4,000.
The federal government sent Illinois thousands of tests, and he warned if more help wasn’t on the way, the state might run out of tests.
“We need not thousands of tests, but tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of tests available,” Pritzker said. “We don’t have those today.”
Though testing continued to be limited for weeks, eventually the state was reporting thousands of test results per day. In early May of last year, Pritzker announced his five-phase economic reopening plan. At the time, he spoke of Phase Five — a return to normal life — as very far off.
“Here’s the truth, and I don’t like it any more than you do: Until we have a vaccine or an effective treatment or enough widespread immunity that new cases fail to materialize, the option of returning to normalcy doesn’t exist,” Pritzker said.
But more than 13 months later, more than half of all Illinoisans 12 and over eligible for a COVID vaccine are fully vaccinated. Testing continues apace — this week surpassing 25 million COVID tests processed in Illinois since last winter — and new cases and hospitalizations have fallen substantially in recent weeks.
However, though COVID deaths have slowed considerably, IDPH still reports new deaths every day and on Thursday, Illinois’ total number of COVID deaths surpassed 23,000.
Since Illinois’ first COVID case was identified in late January 2020 — the second known case in the U.S. — IDPH has reported 1,387,029 COVID cases, which include probable cases.
Of those, 23,035 Illinoisans have died after being infected with the virus. IDPH has identified additional 2,417 Illinoisans who likely died of COVID.
COVID hit minority communities hardest, from unemployment to infection rates to deaths. Though numbers have evened out since the height of the pandemic, IDPH data shows Black Illinoisans died at disproportionate rates. Research finds underlying structural racism was exacerbated by the pandemic, amplifying existing health disparities, issues like lack of access to medical care and other environmental factors contributes to the disproportionate impact.
Latino communities have also been hit particularly hard by COVID. Meat packing plants, which were highlighted as hotbeds of COVID spread especially in the early months of the pandemic, employ many Latino workers, and places like Elgin with high Latino populations also saw high positivity rates early on during COVID.
Black and brown Illinoisans — and Americans more broadly — tend to be employed in jobs deemed “essential” in disproportionate amounts compared with white workers, who are more likely to be able to work from home. Chicago’s 60623 ZIP code, for example, which contains parts of both North Lawndale and Little Village, was for a while the hardest-hit area of the entire state in terms of both COVID cases and deaths.
Long-term care facilities were also hit hard by COVID, especially in the beginning of the pandemic. But as vaccines rolled out to nursing homes beginning in late December, IDPH data shows cases and deaths from those facilities began to fall more precipitously than cases and deaths in the general public.
As of Friday, 79,400 of Illinois' 1,387,029 total COVID cases have been in long-term care facilities — 5.7% of the total number of cases. And of Illinois' 23,035 deaths, 10,486 have been in long-term care facilities — 45.5% of the state's total COVID deaths.
Illinois’ nearly 1.4 million known cases so far were identified through 25,073,580 COVID tests — many of which were nose swab PCR tests, but the University of Illinois’ saliva test has been adopted for testing programs throughout the state, including other universities and some K-12 schools.
Since the first COVID shots were given in mid-December, 5,705,969 Illinoisans are now fully vaccinated. That’s 44.78% of the total population (estimated at 12.7 million despite 2020 Census data released in April showing Illinois’ population as 12.8 million; an IDPH spokeswoman says the agency may change its baseline in the future).
Those 12 and over are eligible for the vaccine, and of that estimated population, 52.46% are fully vaccinated.
It’s only been a month since children between 12 and 15 became eligible for the Pfizer vaccine. But since then, 273,362 youths have received at least one shot — 41.5% of that cohort.
Illinoisans 65 and older were in the second group eligible for vaccines in Illinois, behind medical professionals and long-term care facility residents. 3,121,683 Illinoisans 65 and older have gotten at least one shot — 82.51% of that population — and 1,539,606 seniors are fully vaccinated.
April 12 — the day all Illinoisans 16 and over became eligible for COVID shots regardless of job field or pre-existing conditions — was also the peak for vaccine uptake; Illinois’ 7-day average for vaccine doses administered was highest on that day with 131,624 shots per day.
The state’s 7-day rolling average for doses administered has fallen to 48,012 as of Friday, as mass vaccination clinics statewide have begun to shutter.
Illinois is the sixth-most populous state in the nation and its geography reveals stark disparities in vaccination rates. DuPage County, the wealthiest of the state’s 102 counties, is 52.35% fully vaccinated as of Friday, while Alexander County in deep southern Illinois is only 13.76% fully vaccinated.
Illinois’ 7-day average COVID case positivity rate has fallen to 1% in recent days from a high of 13.2% on Nov. 13. IDPH didn’t begin reporting case positivity until late May of last year.
The state’s 7-day average test positivity rate is always higher than case positivity, and that rate has plummeted to 1.3% lately from highs that reached north of 25% in the early weeks of the pandemic, though those numbers are heavily skewed due to low levels of testing availability at the time. On-demand COVID testing wouldn’t be made available to the general public until early June 2020 but in the beginning, people weren’t taking COVID tests unless there was significant reason to believe they were exposed.
At different points during the pandemic, different areas of the state were hit harder than others. Until early July of last year, Scott County in western Illinois reported zero COVID cases. When Pritzker altered his “Restore Illinois” plan from considering four main regions of the state to 11 regions in mid-July, plus a tiered plan for mitigations in case of virus resurgence, all of those areas were doing well for weeks.
But a month later, the Metro East region’s 7-day average positivity rate climbed past 8%, triggering so-called Tier I mitigations on restaurants and bars. From there, at least one region of the state was under some sort of mitigation until February, with Pritzker freezing all regions in Tier III mitigations for the bulk of the holiday season, shuttering indoor dining and other businesses like museums and theaters while COVID’s second wave raged.
Region 1, containing counties in northern Illinois on the border with Wisconsin saw the highest 7-day average positivity rate since IDPH began publishing that data on Nov. 12 with 20.9% test positivity.
But as of Friday, all 11 regions’ 7-day average positivity rates were under 2%, with west central Illinois’ Region 3 doing the best at 0.9%.
In the early days of COVID, an oft-repeated phrase was “flatten the curve” — the goal of quarantining was to slow the virus’ progress so as to not overwhelm hospitals. Five alternate care facilities were set up as backup, the largest at McCormick Place in Chicago at a cost of $66 million, though the funds came from the federal CARES Act, and not state or city coffers.
The state’s health system never did get truly overwhelmed, however, and the 2,750-bed McCormick Place site set up by the National Guard infamously ended up seeing only 38 patients.
But the pandemic’s second wave in Illinois in the fall and winter meant scarily high hospitalization numbers at its peak: 6,175 Illinoisans were hospitalized with COVID as of 11:59 p.m. on Nov. 20, just six days before Thanksgiving.
The last reported data Thursday evening showed 707 Illinoisans hospitalized with COVID statewide. For the last two weeks, total hospital beds in use for COVID patients has dropped to the lowest levels since IDPH began reporting hospitalization data in early April of last year.
ICU bed usage for COVID patients statewide reached a peak of 1,289 on April 29 of last year, and the pandemic’s second wave saw the second-highest total ICU beds in use for COVID of 1,224 on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.
As of Thursday night, 185 COVID patients in Illinois were in ICU beds.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the availability of ventilators was a top concern for Pritzker’s office, which bought equipment at inflated prices and made trades with other states like California in order to ensure Illinois never ran out of ventilators for COVID patients whose illnesses were so bad they could no longer breathe on their own.
The first day IDPH began reporting hospitalization statistics, April 12, 2020, was also the peak day for ventilator use in Illinois with 800 COVID patients statewide on ventilators. As of Thursday night, that figure had fallen to 94, a number matched on March 13 before a smaller uptick in COVID cases and hospitalizations prevented the state from moving to Phase Five more quickly than it was originally on track to do.
That bump in COVID cases and hospitalizations in March and April coincided with a rise in new variants of the virus found in Illinois. Those variants first started appearing around the time vaccines began rolling out in December. As of Friday, IDPH has reported 9,156 cases of COVID variants, though the true number is likely much higher.
The vast majority of those cases are the B.1.1.7 variant originally found in the U.K., followed by the P.1. variant that originally emerged in Brazil. The most recent variant of concern, the so-called Delta variant, has not been reported in Illinois.
Research shows vaccines are effective against the variants of concern, but there have still been breakthrough cases of COVID — of all types — since vaccines began rolling out. People who are immunocompromised are more at risk because their bodies are less able to mount a full immune response after getting vaccinated.
According to IDPH, 413 Illinoisans have been hospitalized with COVID even after getting fully vaccinated, and 106 have died due to COVID or complications from the virus.