Illinois saw an “uptick” in COVID cases within the last week, the state’s health department said Friday.
With the number of counties under a “high” community level for the virus rising from three to five this week, and another 33 at a “medium” level, per guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Illinois Department of Public Health urged residents to get new bivalent booster shots alongside flu vaccines before the holiday season. Residents in counties under a high alert level are urged to wear masks in public spaces.
“As the weather is getting colder and Halloween is nearly upon us, Illinois and much of the nation are seeing a notable increase in individuals getting sick from respiratory viruses, including the flu, RSV and once again COVID-19,” IDPH Director Dr. Sameer Vohra said in a statement. “This uptick makes it critically important for everyone to use the tools that are available to protect yourself and your family. Vaccines remain the most powerful tool to prevent serious illness. If you have not gotten the COVID-19 booster and a flu shot for yourself and your eligible children, now is a great time. I recommend everyone in Illinois get fully protected. And if you are feeling sick, please stay home, get tested, and call your doctor for help. I encourage all Illinoisians to do all they can to stay safe and healthy as the holiday season approaches.”
Illinois reported 13,642 new COVID cases in the last week, along with 67 deaths. That lifts the state’s total number of cases since the pandemic began to just over 3.8 million, along with more than 35,200 deaths.
The numbers also mark increases from last week’s 11,995 cases and 43 deaths.
The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 also rose from 1,060 to 1,080 in the last week, 129 of which are in intensive care and 48 of which are on ventilators.
While the state has seen large surges in COVID in successive winters, including the omicron-driven surge in the winter of 2021-22 that ultimately led to a wave of illness sickening more than 30,000 Illinois residents per day, officials have expressed concerns about a “tripledemic” of COVID, flu and RSV.
“The triple combo you don’t want is flu, COVID and RSV and the other respiratory illnesses,” Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said, adding that it is possible for someone to contract all three at the same time.
“In theory, you could have them all at once,” she said. “That would be a not good situation because these viruses are not related to each other and we definitely have seen examples of people having COVID and flu at the same time, which is not good news. And a child could have RSV and flu at the same time or RSV and COVID potentially.”
Arwady, Chicago-area doctors and national health experts have been predicting a particularly challenging flu, COVID and respiratory virus season ahead. Already, hospitals in the Chicago area are filling up with sick children, many of whom are suffering from intense RSV cases.
“As health professionals, I think we can say that we are concerned,” Cook County Health Dr. Gregory Huhn said. “Historically, we know that the upcoming months typically lead to a surge in COVID.”
New COVID variants are emerging “more quickly right now,” Chicago’s top doctor said during a coronavirus update Friday, and that could signal a shift heading into colder months.
“Subvariants emerge when COVID spreads and so the fact that we are also starting to see more emergence of these subvariants tells me that the COVID virus is on the move a little bit from an immune evasion perspective,” Arwady said.
But none of the recent subvariants, which are rapidly rising in numbers, have so far reached the threshold of being designated a “variant of concern,” she noted, adding that they remain under the omicron umbrella.
According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, BA.5 is still making up approximately 62.2% of COVID cases in the U.S. That subvariant has been the dominant strain of COVID since early July, but it’s rapidly declining as other strains take hold.
While the BA.4.6 subvariant is still the second-most prevalent at 11.3%, several descendants of BA.5 are rapidly gaining round. According to the CDC, BQ.1 is now responsible for 9.4% of cases, while BQ.1.1 is responsible for an estimated 7.2% of cases.
These numbers are causing some concern in the medical community, as the National Institutes of Health warns that some emerging subvariants could be resistant to monoclonal antibodies, robbing physicians of a key tool in pushing back against COVID.
“So all of these BA, BQ, BF, the numbers – those are all subvariants of omicron,” Arwady said. “The thing that I am most worried about, which we have not yet seen and I hope we do not see, is the emergence of a new variant of concern. A variant of concern is when we give it a new name – you remember, like alpha, delta, omicron. Just yesterday, the WHO met and continued to say none of these new subvariants are different enough to meet the definition for a new variant of concern. But if you hear us starting to talk about the next letter of the Greek alphabet, that marks a major change and a real concern. And the thing I do not know the most for this winter is whether we will see the emergence not just of an omicron sub variant, but a completely different variant of concern.”
So far the new omicron subvariants have been making headlines as “nightmare” or “scrabble” COVID variants.
“The ones that are particularly concerning are BQ.1 and another related one called BQ.1.1. Those are two that are expanding fairly rapidly in the United States,” Roy Gulick, chief of the division of infectious disease at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, told CNBC this week.
Where experts are also concerned is the emergence of a “tripledemic.”
Experts continue urging people to get vaccinated not just for flu but also with the new bivalent COVID booster shot.
IDPH reported that over the last week, an average of more than 26,000 doses of the new bivalent vaccines were administered across the state each day. The department said that number is more than triple the daily average for all vaccinations for most of the summer.
“You need to get both vaccines,” Arwady said. “Everybody age 6 months and up should get a flu vaccine this fall. Everybody 6 months and up should have had their COVID vaccine. And if you are 5 years and up, you need to get a fall 2022 booster.”