SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - Illinois public health officials on Friday approved universal COVID-19 vaccination in areas where demand for the shots is lagging and pledged to dispatch mobile teams to boost vaccine distribution in one trouble spot as the disease’s toll started to creep back up.
And while other states are dumping mask mandates, Dr. Ngozi Ezike, the Illinois public health director, re-emphasized the need for face coverings and other well-known precautions such as social distancing, despite increasing supplies of vaccine.
The single-day total of confirmed and probable cases of the illness topped 3,000 Friday for the first time in seven weeks. Hospitalizations because of the virus have jumped by 15% in the past five days. The seven-day test positivity rate has crawled up to 3.2% after hitting a post-October low of 2.5% on March 11.
"Recent increases in hospital admissions and test positivity are concerning new developments ...," Ezike said in a statement. "We don’t want to go down the same path we’ve seen before and experience a resurgence in the pandemic, which is why Gov. Pritzker directed us to use all our resources to halt these upticks."
Those include mobile rapid-response teams that will be dispatched to five counties — Boone, Carroll, Lee, Ogle, Whiteside — in northwest Illinois. Those areas have witnessed a week’s worth of increased hospital bed usage and test positivity.
Illinois officials expect to receive 1 million doses of the vaccine from the federal government next week, a record. By Friday, the state had received 6.15 million doses and distributed 5.28 million first or second shots, including 364,302 to long-term care facility residents.
At the same time, demand for the vaccine has dropped in pockets of the state, with doses sitting unused as appointments for shots get skipped.
Any county experiencing a drop-off is allowed to open vaccinations up to anyone 16 or older, three weeks before Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he would open up vaccinations statewide. Ezike advised residents to call their county health departments to check availability.
In Illinois, COVID-19 has claimed 21,203 lives among 1,232,900 cases.
Last week, Democrat Pritzker announced he would implement a "bridge" to a reopened, post-COVID economy by incrementally allowing larger crowds and more commercial and social interaction.
Moving to the bridge requires that 70% of residents 65 and older have received at least one shot, hospitals maintain at least 20% intensive care unit bed availability and that COVID-19 related hospitalizations stay steady or decline in a 28-day period.
The threshold for vaccinated seniors is days away, but COVID-19 case counts in Chicago have increased by 50% in a week; they’re up 40% in surrounding Cook County, in addition to the troubling statistics in the northwest.
"We cannot move forward if our metrics are going backward," Ezike said. "The vaccine will help get us to the end of the pandemic, but we need to continue to reduce spread of the virus by wearing a mask" and taking other precautions.
Arkansas plans to end its mask mandate at month’s end. Iowa lifted the face-covering rule on Feb. 7. Indiana will set aside the requirement next month.