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Health, Science, Environment

As Metro East Coronavirus Cases Rise, Illinois Shifts Response Strategy

The new coronavirus has been detected in dozens of countries, including the United States. It gets its name from its protruding spikes, which resemble a crown.
Nat Thomas | St. Louis Public Radio
The average number of people testing positive for the coronavirus in St. Clair and Madison counties is nearly double what it was a month ago. This week, Madison County reported its two highest daily totals of new cases.

The number of people infected with the coronavirus each day in the Metro East is slowly rising, raising the possibility that Illinois will need to reimpose some lockdown measures to slow the spread of infection. 

Madison County reported 47 new COVID-19 infections Thursday, the most in a single day since the pandemic hit the region in March. More troubling are St. Clair and Madison counties’ seven-day rolling averages for new infections. 

They both show significant upticks in the average number of people who are testing positive for the coronavirus each day compared to a month ago. More positive cases doesn’t automatically mean communities in the Metro East will see new restrictions. 

Under newly released guidelines from Gov. J.B. Pritzker, areas of the state won’t see new restrictions unless a region sees an increase in the seven-day rolling average of the area’s testing positivity rate in seven of the past 10 days paired with increases in hospital admissions or decreases in hospital capacity. 

Testing positivity is the percentage of positive coronavirus test results compared to the total number of people tested. Three consecutive days of a positivity rate above 8% will automatically trigger new mitigation efforts.

“It’s important when we see trends in our data that indicate a potential problem in any region in Illinois, that we start tightening mitigations in that region before it’s too late,” Pritkzer said. “I will not hesitate to reimpose some mitigations if we see our numbers moving upward.”

This makes communities in the Metro East different from those in Missouri, because there are clear metrics and plans for how new restrictions would be applied. 

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Pritzker also redefined the way Illinois’ Department of Health groups and monitors counties for potential outbreaks. The Metro East is now its own region, separate from the rest of southern Illinois, and includes St. Clair, Madison, Monroe, Randolph, Washington and Bond counties. 

The approach will allow Illinois to be more targeted when it addresses future local outbreaks of the virus, Pritzker said. The state will also choose from a range of restrictions to meet the nature of a specific local outbreak, like closing bars and restaurants while leaving other businesses open. 

“In each category we have three tiers of mitigations, allowing us to move carefully but deliberately depending upon the severity of the situation to control the spread of the virus, while continuing to allow a region to be open to the greatest extent possible,” Pritzker said. 

New restrictions may be hard for cities

The return of stricter measures would be challenging for some Metro East communities, which have just started to recover from the state’s first round of lockdowns. 

“We’ll really be scratching our heads here real soon if there is another shutdown,” said East St. Louis Mayor Robert Eastern. “Financially, that’s devastation for us, potentially closing up shop.”

The Casino Queen, one of the city’s largest sources of revenue, only started operating again about two weeks ago. The casino accounts for about $6 million of East St. Louis’ $18 million general revenue fund, which pays the salaries of city employees.

Another shutdown could mean layoffs or other difficult cuts for East St. Louis, especially after the city faced other financial troubles just before the pandemic hit, Eastern said. The city recently had to make back pension fund payments it owed the state.

Even if the city faces major financial pain, Eastern affirmed his support for new restrictions if it means saving lives.

“If it’s safer for the citizens in the state of Illinois and surrounding states, that’s what we have to do,” he said. “I’m all for that.”

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Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program: Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid 

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