Illinois COVID-19 hospitalizations climb amid Omicron variant fears

COVID-19 hospitalizations in Illinois have risen 15.4% since Wednesday, and a new variant is concerning public health officials and government leaders.

Illinois Department of Public Health records released for the first time in nearly a week show 2,287 COVID-19 patients being treated in hospitals statewide. Of those hospitalized, 446 are in intensive care.

The rapid rise in hospitalizations comes as a new variant of the virus is causing concern across the world.

The Omicron variant was first detected last week in South Africa and several neighboring countries, which triggered a travel ban to the United States from those countries. Many U.S. public health officials believe the variant is likely already here, though.

Most concerning to virologists is the variant's 30-plus mutations of its spike protein, the part of the virus that attaches to cells and causes infection. Prior highly transmissible variants of COVID-19, including Alpha and Delta, had less than 10 mutations of its spike protein, health officials explained.

“That's what put this on our radar,” said Dr. Rachel Rubin, co-lead attending physician at the Cook County Department of Public Health. “This variant is more concerning until we know more, and then it might not be as concerning.”

The World Health Organization said the new variant poses a “very high” global risk.

But medical experts note that several other once-concerning variants of COVID-19 have fizzled after initial detection by researchers.

“These mutations in the protein could make the virus more contagious or make it potentially resistant to the vaccines we've already received or both,” said Dr. Jeffrey Kopin, chief medical officer at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital. “But there have been variants we thought were going to be a big deal before that never became a problem, so I don't think anyone should panic and nothing should really change in our lives, unless you're unvaccinated. This is a great time to get vaccinated.”

At a news conference Monday, President Biden also urged Americans to get vaccinated or get a booster when eligible. Biden said the Omicron variant was “a cause for concern, but not a cause for panic.” He also noted that there were no plans to increase mitigation efforts with any type of lockdowns or shut downs “for now.”

“If people are vaccinated and wear their masks, there's no need for a lockdown,” the president said.

While the Omicron variant hasn't been detected in the U.S., Rubin suspects it's “pretty likely” already here.

“We know it's in Canada and there's been travel going on back and forth,” she said. “It's probably at very low levels.”

And Kopin said that while the variant was first detected in South Africa, it doesn't necessarily mean it originated there. He noted South Africa's robust and sophisticated viral testing network from years of tracking HIV and ebola infections helped researchers quickly detect the change in the Omicron variant's genetic makeup.

“And we're just going to learn more,” he said.

Researchers in the U.S. have already begun testing positive samples for the variant, but it will likely take a few weeks for those results.

Similarly, it will be a few weeks before researchers can determine how well the current vaccines are handling the Omicron variant.

“In a few weeks we'll see in those countries that do have it how many breakthrough cases they're having,” Rubin explained.

Meanwhile, Illinois has recorded 78 more COVID-19 deaths and 19,261 new cases over the past five days, IDPH figures show.

That brings the state's death toll from the virus to 26,391, while 1,804,161 cases have been diagnosed since the outset of the pandemic.

IDPH officials reported the state's seven-day case positivity rate is at 4.1%, the highest it's been since mid-September. When last reported Wednesday, the state's seven-day case positivity rate was at 3.3%.

Case positivity rates are determined as the percentage of tests that result in a new case of the disease. A seven-day average is used to account for any anomalies in the daily reporting of those figures. The rate allows public health officials to determine the level of infection within a certain population.

IDPH officials also reported 203,875 more doses of COVID-19 vaccine were administered statewide over the past five days.

To date, 17,234,911 doses of the vaccine have been administered statewide, according to IDPH records.

IDPH officials are also reporting 57.9% of the state's 12.7 million residents are now fully vaccinated.

What health officials know — and don't know — about omicron

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