COVID Restrictions Could Return In Metro East If Cases Surge During Illinois’ Reopening
Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
Illinois moved into the next phase of reopening Friday as public health officials remained cautiously optimistic about low COVID-19 numbers. But restrictions could return if the virus overtakes vaccination efforts.
Though Illinois is in the “bridge” phase toward full reopening, the state could go back into the previous phase, Phase 4, if new cases increase significantly and if at least one of the following happens over a 10-day period:
- Hospital intensive care unit availability drops below 20%
- Total hospitalizations or deaths increase significantly
Coronavirus statistics look steady if not promising in the Metro East, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. The agency defines the Metro East as St. Clair, Madison, Bond, Clinton, Monroe, Randolph and Washington counties.
The St. Louis region as a whole was also stable as vaccinations tick upward, said Dr. Alex Garza, incident commander of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force. The task force is a private group of hospital and public health officials that has been tracking and reporting on COVID-19 in the metropolitan area.
Avoiding renewed restrictions will depend on vaccinations continuing to increase.
“If you can suppress the virus low enough while increasing the vaccination rate, the probability of getting a surge is really low,” Garza said. “ ... A lot of that depends on how high a percentage of the community can you get vaccinated and how fast. You can’t have lifted restrictions with low vaccination rates.”
The task force estimates roughly 37% of people in the St. Louis metro area, including Illinois, have been fully vaccinated. Around 47% have had at least one dose.
“Every day we’re getting closer. Every day we are vaccinating people,” Garza said. “It’s just the rate that’s going to determine when we reach our day that we can finally throw our masks away.”
The “six million dollar question” remains when it will be safe to “go back to being more normal,” Garza said. Illinois could move to Phase 5, as close to normal as the state will get while COVID-19 still circulates, as soon as June 11.
But there’s no magic metric.
As they have for more than a year, public health officials will continue tracking cases, hospitalizations, deaths and vaccination rates — all indicators of how widespread COVID-19 might be in the region and how many people might be protected. Tracking will not end anytime soon.
“If we hit 80% of people vaccinated in the community, that’s a pretty solid metric because we’ve got a majority of people vaccinated,” Garza said. “On the flip side, cases, hospitalizations, those are always more difficult metrics to interpret just because there are a lot of things that play into it.”
In the Metro East, the percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive has hovered between 2.5% and 3% since late April, a sign that community spread remains low, and hospitalizations have steadily decreased in the same time frame, IDPH data shows.
While the positivity rate can be an imperfect measurement especially if testing is low, health officials know for sure that increasing hospitalizations are a bad sign.
If someone ends up in the hospital with COVID-19, they’re really sick, Garza said, as opposed to someone who has a mild case and might forego testing. Vaccinations have helped reduce hospitalizations since a horrible spike this winter, but St. Louis-area hospitals are still seeing 35 to 40 new COVID-19 patients a day and anywhere from 200 to 220 total admissions for the past seven weeks, according to task force data.
Tracking hospitalizations will continue to play an important role in measuring COVID-19’s impact on the St. Louis region.
Illinois and vaccination rates
In Illinois, new hospital admissions, daily cases and overall hospitalizations continue to decrease as the vaccination rate ticks upward. As of Friday, nearly 81% of Illinoisans 65 and older and 57.5% of residents over 16 had at least one dose, and 36.5% of residents had been fully vaccinated.
The state’s potential for avoiding another surge will depend on those numbers going up, and on vaccination rates going up around the world. Coronavirus continues to devastate India, increasing the risk that a variant could break through vaccine immunity.
“As long as the virus is able to circulate, it can mutate and we can end up with more deadly variants, which would send us in the wrong direction,” said Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike at a news conference in Chicago this week.
“The quickest way for life to return to normal is for more people to get vaccinated,” Ezike added.
Vaccinators have started bringing shots to people rather than waiting for people to seek them out. The shift comes as supply outweighs demand.
As mass vaccination clinics wind down in southwestern Illinois, it will become easier for patients to get vaccinated at their doctor’s office, work, school, express medical clinic or local pharmacy without an appointment — akin to getting an annual flu shot. Health officials hope easier access will send the vaccination rate higher as they address hesitancy among others.
Though the St. Clair County mass vaccination site at Belle-Clair Fairgrounds will close May 30, the county is planning mobile clinics. The health department will set up clinics at area high schools and pop-up events in communities, said county emergency management agency assistant director Bryan Whitaker. The temporary clinics will operate in addition to a permanent site at the county health department at 330 W. Main in Belleville.
“We’re going to see this transition into these mobile, pop-up clinics where we see the need happen the most,” Whitaker said in a news conference Monday.
These next steps are universal across the country, Garza said. The demand for vaccinations may have slowed, but taking vaccines to the people is an expected part of such a massive public health undertaking.
“The final mile in the marathon is the toughest, and this is the toughest mile trying to get those pockets of people because it takes a lot of on-the-ground work and understanding the issues of what are preventing vaccinations,” Garza said. “So, now it becomes much more of a ground game.”
Kelsey Landis is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.