Editorial: Yes, the daily counts of new COVID-19 cases still count
Are the daily counts of new cases becoming moot, or overplayed? Not with the figures that still spin off them
For nearly two years, state health officials and we in the media have dutifully reported daily COVID-19 figures, particularly the day's new cases and deaths. Except for a period over the summer, the state health department reported 1,000 new cases or more per day most of last year.
As the omicron variant has sent statewide daily new-case counts into record-setting five figures again, and even before, the question arose: Should there be so much focus on those counts? Maybe it's not so important how many people are getting COVID-19 anymore, critics have said; maybe the focus should be on only hospitalizations and deaths.
But the new-case count still matters -- because of those hospitalization and death counts that spin off from it.
There's talk of COVID-19 becoming endemic, especially with omicron. Maybe a 20,000-case tally isn't what it used to be. But no, it's not yet like the flu. The CDC estimates there were an estimated 35 million cases of traditional flu in the 2019-2020 flu season, but only 380,000 hospitalizations from them. That's a little more than 1%. From August 2020 to now, more than 53 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported, the CDC data shows, and they've resulted in nearly 3.8 million hospitalizations -- about 7%.
We can only hope that percentage is dropping, but for now, still, it simply doesn't take very many of the new cases to cause a crisis in intensive care units and create suffering among Illinoisans and their families.
And there are a lot of cases to start with.
While more than 100,000 new COVID cases per week have been reported statewide recently -- and closer to 200,000 last week -- there are only 31,544 hospital beds in the state, Illinois Department of Public Health figures show.
Then, there are only 2,978 ICU beds in the state -- for all 12.7 million residents. That, by the way, is for any and every illness and injury, not just COVID. As Erin Woodson, emergency nurse at Edward Hospital in Naperville, put it to us late last month, "People still have strokes and heart attacks and fall off roofs putting up Christmas lights."
In fact, of those nearly 3,000 ICU beds, the most that have been used at one time for COVID-19 patients is 1,290, near the beginning of the pandemic, IDPH data shows. In three waves, more than 1,000 ICU beds have been used at one time by COVID patients: the spring of 2020, the fall wave in 2020 and now.
For the vast majority of the pandemic, between about 1,400 and 2,200 ICU beds have been regularly used for non-COVID reasons, IDPH data shows. That's why COVID-19 patients' taking up 1,000 or more ICU beds at one time is a big deal. A single disease is taking up one-third of the state's ICU beds. Last week, less than 10% of ICU beds were open.
It doesn't take many of the new cases for that to happen. COVID is still taking a disproportionate number of hospital beds and lives. That's why those new-case counts matter.