What will fast-spreading COVID-19 variant abroad mean for Illinois?

  • Health experts are urging Illinoisans to get COVID-19 vaccines or booster shots with a highly infectious virus variant surging in other parts of the world.

      Health experts are urging Illinoisans to get COVID-19 vaccines or booster shots with a highly infectious virus variant surging in other parts of the world. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer, April 2021

Updated 4/6/2022 6:41 AM

With a fast-spreading COVID-19 variant spiraling in the United Kingdom and other parts of the world, local health officials are eying Illinois' case and infection rates closely.

Currently, COVID-19 transmission rates are low across Illinois in all but eastern Edgar County, which is listed as medium, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.


But that could change, experts said. Previous COVID-19 surges in the U.K. typically manifest three to four weeks later in the United States, Cook County Health infectious disease specialist Dr. Sharon Welbel said Tuesday.

"I do think we will be seeing increasing cases (and) we're going to see more substantial transmission," Welbel said.

The latest COVID-19 strain, a subvariant of omicron dubbed BA.2, is extremely infectious, although vaccines are effective in reducing hospitalizations and deaths, health experts said. Currently, BA.2 represents about 72% of new cases in the U.S., according to the CDC.

The state's seven-day average for new COVID-19 cases climbed by 10.5% in a week, with 1,302 new cases recorded Tuesday compared to 1,178 daily on March 29, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Hospitalizations notched up slightly, up to a seven-day average of 483 as of Monday compared to 472 from March 22 to 28, or an increase of 2.3%.

"What I'm mostly concerned about in the U.K., where 68% of their population is boosted, is that they're also seeing an increased rate in hospitalizations," Welbel said. About one in 13 people in the U.K. is estimated to have contracted BA.2.

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In Illinois, 68.3% of the population is fully vaccinated. The CDC defines fully vaccinated as two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or one dose of Johnson & Johnson's.

More than 50% of vaccinated Illinoisans have had a booster shot, the CDC reported.

"We do still have a significant proportion of the U.S. that is not boosted and a significant percent that is completely unvaccinated," Welbel said. "People who are not vaccinated are over 90 times more likely to become hospitalized or die."

"The best thing we can do is to stay up to date on our vaccines, or if you're not vaccinated you absolutely have to get vaccinated, Welbel said. "We've got incredible tools. We just have to do it."

At a weekly briefing Tuesday, Chicago Public Health Department Commissioner Allison Arwady reported an uptick in cases "but nothing alarming at this point.


"We expect to see this gradual increase continue for the near future, but we're not seeing signs of a major surge," Arwady said. Instead, as BA.2 becomes more predominant, the infection growth is more measured "as opposed to this really out of control that we saw during omicron," she said.

Over December and January, omicron's spread broke case and hospitalization records in Illinois.

The IDPH reported 34 deaths from COVID-19 from Sunday to Tuesday, and the daily average is 12 people.

On Monday, 18,660 more COVID-19 shots were administered. The seven-day average is 16,183.

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