Illinois sees seasonal bump in COVID-19 infections after ‘mild’ year

At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, a quarter of the new patients being hospitalized each week throughout Illinois were infected with the deadly respiratory disease.

This year though, that figure never climbed above 6%. It reached its highest levels in January and was last reported at 3.6%, according to Illinois Department of Public Health records.

“What we’re increasingly expecting to see moving forward with COVID-19 is seasonal surges like we see with other illnesses like RSV and the flu,” said IDPH Director Dr. Sameer Vohra. “But as we’ve learned throughout the now nearly four years since the first COVID-19 case in Illinois, it’s impossible to completely predict the future.”

2023 Illinois COVID-19 statistics

After dipping to less than 1% of new weekly admissions for most of the summer, COVID-related hospitalizations are trickling back up. However, the cases are nowhere near the levels seen in the past.

“What we’re also seeing is that the spectrum of illness has become more mild, though the virus itself is not going away,” said Dr. Jonathan Pinsky, medical director of infection control and prevention at Endeavor Health Edward Hospital in Naperville. “Before we had widespread immunity through vaccination and previous infections, it was a very serious disease for people, but now we’re seeing milder illness.”

A new mutation of the virus — the JN.1 subvariant — is responsible for nearly half of all the new cases diagnosed nationally over the past week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week. While able to spread rapidly, the new subvariant does not come with any additional risk, officials noted.

“It’s hopeful to believe that this will become a seasonal pattern,” said Dr. Lamar Hasbrouck, head of the Cook County Department of Public Health. “We do know we’ve moved to an annual vaccine for COVID-19 much like the flu model.”

However, CDC records show less than 20% of American adults received the most recent vaccine booster that specifically targeted the Omicron strain. In Illinois, nearly a quarter of the adult population received the latest booster as of Dec. 9, CDC records show.

“We have to acknowledge that all of us throughout the country have a bit of COVID fatigue,” Vohra said. “But one of the things we know from national data is people still value vaccines overall, and we continued our work with trusted messengers to make sure people know how to get the vaccine and the benefit it can make.”

Health officials note symptoms are milder and the risk of hospitalization from infection is lower among those who are vaccinated.

But older Americans and those with underlying medical conditions remain most at risk for severe symptoms, hospitalization and even death from COVID-19.

“It’s holding firm in terms of risk to those groups,” Hasbrouck said. “We’re still seeing the majority of hospitalizations in those 65 and older.”

Mortality has declined significantly though.

After recording nearly 8,000 COVID-related deaths in 2022, Illinois is likely to finish 2023 with less than 2,500.

Current IDPH figures show 2,412 Illinois residents died from COVID in the weeks between Dec. 18, 2022, and Dec. 16, 2023.

“Between the layers of immunity many of us have built up through vaccinations and infection, we are also fortunate to have the antiviral medications, like Paxlovid, that stop the progression of severe illness,” Pinsky said.

Illinois has recorded 41,093 COVID-related deaths since the outset of the pandemic, according to CDC figures. That represents about 3.5% of all COVID deaths nationally since 2020.

When the federal COVID-19 emergency declaration ended in May, IDPH officials shifted their focus from strictly monitoring COVID-19 to all types of respiratory ailments including flu, pneumonia and RSV as well on the agency’s website,

“Part of the end of the public health emergency was a moment for all of us to take a deep breath and exhale, but continue to make sure (COVID-19) treatment gets integrated into our regular health care system,” Vohra said. “As we advance the most up-to-date vaccine each year, my hope is it diminishes and recedes as a public health concern.”

Despite a recent uptick in COVID-19 cases throughout Illinois, public health officials say 2023 was a fairly "mild" year for the respiratory ailment that has killed more than 40,000 in Illinois since 2020. Associated Press File Photo
Data from U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that nearly a quarter of all Illinois adults received the most recent annual COVID-19 vaccine. Associated Press File Photo
Despite a recent uptick in COVID-19 cases throughout Illinois, public health officials say 2023 was a fairly "mild" year for the respiratory ailment that has killed more than 40,000 in Illinois since 2020. Associated Press/Jan. 13, 2023
Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.