2 years ago, Illinois' first COVID-19 case was diagnosed. 2.8 million (and counting) followed.

  • It's now been two years since one of Dr. Michael Handler's patients became the first person to be confirmed with a case of COVID-19 in Illinois, and the hospital has treated hundreds more since. Handler is the chief medical officer at Amita Health St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates.

      It's now been two years since one of Dr. Michael Handler's patients became the first person to be confirmed with a case of COVID-19 in Illinois, and the hospital has treated hundreds more since. Handler is the chief medical officer at Amita Health St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer, 2021

 
 
Updated 1/24/2022 6:13 AM

It's now been two years since the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in Illinois.

A Chicago woman who had just returned from Wuhan, China, on Jan. 13, 2020, began exhibiting symptoms of what was then widely referred to as "the coronavirus."

 

She sought treatment from her physician at Amita Health St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates, who referred her to the hospital's emergency department after being screened. A positive test would come back Jan. 24, making her just the second person diagnosed with the fearsome respiratory disease in the United States.

"It's an experience I'm certainly never going to forget," said Dr. Michael Handler, the hospital's chief medical officer. "It was an amazing experience what we all went through. We had almost all of the state's public health officials all staying in our basement for the first six weeks as they were working with us and learning with us from our patient."

Since then, the state has seen nearly 2.8 million more infections.

There have been days when barely 100 new cases were detected. But there have been many more when more than 20,000 new cases were diagnosed.

Nearly 30,000 Illinois residents have succumbed to the highly infectious virus, while state health officials believe another 3,600-plus likely died of COVID-19 as well, but don't have a positive test result to prove it, just the same symptoms.

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Every Illinois hospital keeps a daily record of how many COVID-19 patients are being treated. At one point this past summer, there were two days when there were less than 400 such patients hospitalized. Barely six months later there would be a record 7,380 COVID-19 patients hospitalized across Illinois.

At last count on Friday, there were 6,054 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Illinois.

"I'll be honest, our staff is tired," Handler said. "We are all exhausted. It's been a major strain. But I am continually impressed by their resilience."

When vaccines were introduced in December 2020, it was widely hoped that Illinois, and the rest of the nation, would see a continuous drop in cases and hospitalizations where the disease would be minimally noticed. But uptake of the vaccine has stalled out after an initial pace of inoculations that providers had a hard time keeping up with.

Currently, though, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting just 65.6% of the state's population is fully vaccinated, and only residents 5 and older remain eligible for the vaccine.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The need for booster doses in late 2021 seemingly made the country more pandemic-weary than it already was. CDC figures show just 39.9% of those fully vaccinated in the U.S. have so far received a booster dose.

Hopes of returning to a somewhat normal life were dashed as masking mandates were dropped and then reinstituted, even for the vaccinated.

Bob Dix, a Palatine resident who in February 2020 became the first suburban resident diagnosed with COVID-19, still hasn't gone on any of the trips he'd hoped to make last year.

"We're still talking about going to Florida or a Mississippi River cruise in the summer, but everything is really just still up in the air," he lamented. "My wife and I both got the booster though, and we haven't been sick."

Businesses aren't immune to the problems caused by the pandemic, continuously struggling with staffing issues and supply chain problems.

"It's clearly been most challenging for the retail sector," said Rob Karr, president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. "They're struggling with inflation, a global supply chain problem and so much more. But I do think the pandemic highlighted just how important retail is and the pandemic proved how valuable it was as well as how flexible and innovative you can be."

Educators and students also have seen their worlds completely upended by the pandemic.

"It's certainly been a rough road," said Rondout Elementary District 72 Superintendent Jenny Wojcik. "But I would say we learned the power of collaboration and cooperation because we just needed to get focused on the same goals together."

But the end remains largely out of sight, experts agree. New treatments are on the horizon that show promise in staving off the worst of the symptoms.

"I am hopeful we are going to enter into an endemic phase for this," Karr said. "I believe we have to abandon the thought that we're going to flat-out wipe out COVID, but we'll be able to live with it."

Handler said he's learned not to make predictions about COVID-19.

"I think like everybody we thought it would be over in a year or something like that, but here we are two years now and still in the throes of it," he said. "Until then, my big message is vaccination and masking, and I know everyone is sick of hearing that, but it really is the things that makes the biggest difference."

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