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Illinois Begins to Flatten COVID-19 Curve but Still Has Far to Go

Though there’s a long way to go, Illinois officials say that the curve of the COVID-19 virus in Chicago and across the state could be beginning to flatten.

The Illinois Department of Public Health announced 1,346 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, along with 80 additional deaths. Currently, the state has 24,593 cases, including 948 deaths, in 89 counties in Illinois. One month ago, Illinois reported 105 cases in 15 counties in Illinois. The first COVID-19 death in the state was reported on March 17th. A total of 116,929 people have been tested so far statewide.

Illinois COVID-19 Cases as of April 15, 2020. Screengrab via Illinois Department of Public Health.

Though the numbers continue to rise, they’re doing so more slowly than they could’ve been, thanks to social distancing measures.

“To be clear, there is nothing good about twice as many people have this virus or, worse, dying from it, no matter how long the increase takes. But we won’t get to zero cases overnight. That our doubling rate continues to increase in every metric is a clear demonstration that there is a deceleration of virus transmission,” Pritzker said in his daily press conference on Tuesday.

Pritzker issued a statewide “stay at home” order on March 20, and then extended it March 31. Whether or not that order will be extended again through the month of May is still up in the air. The stay at home order shuttered bars, restaurants, theaters, museums, schools, sporting events, concerts, parades, and most other public gatherings. While residents are still allowed to leave their homes for essential trips like grocery shopping, medical visits and exercise, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot eventually closed the city’s lakefront, the 606, the Riverwalk, and Millennium Park after too many people flooded the areas.

While many Illinoisans are justifiably feeling stir-crazy after nearly a month of mandatory social distancing measures, those efforts by the state have contributed greatly to the slowing of the spread of the virus.

State officials said on Tuesday that the “doubling effect” in Illinois – the length of time it takes for COVID-19 cases to double – has increased from two days on March 22, to slightly more than 8 days as of Sunday. On Wednesday, the Mayor’s Office said the doubling effect in Chicago had increased from 2-3 days a month ago to 12 days.

Since COVID-19 is a novel virus, flattening the curve is paramount to slowing its spread as well as keeping the hospital system from becoming overwhelmed.

“This data is encouraging and shows that all of our efforts appear to be having the intended impact in helping to limit the spread of this virus,” said Dr. Allison Arwady, CDPH Commissioner in a Wednesday press release. “I want to thank the people of Chicago who absolutely have saved lives by staying home. But I want to be clear: this also tells us that we need to be abiding by these restrictions more now than ever, because we haven’t yet gotten to the other side of the curve, where the number of daily cases begins to fall day after day. We need to get to the other side of the curve to be able to move forward as a city.”

At present, officials say the data shows that without mitigation efforts in place, Chicago alone could’ve seen 62,000 cases and 2,000 deaths by now. Hospitals, meanwhile, still have capacity when it comes to beds, ventilators, and ICUs. While the use of ventilators has nearly doubled in a month, the city has boosted the number of them by 40 percent. Chicago’s ICU capacity has kept pace with increasing cases, in part thanks to converting spaces into additional ICU units.

Hospital capacity update screengrab via https://www.chicago.gov/city/en/sites/covid-19/home/hospital-capacity.html

Despite the encouraging data, it could still be weeks before some restrictions are rescinded, and even longer before Illinoisans even begin to see life return to some sense of normalcy.

Mitigation efforts during a pandemic that keep the majority of people healthy and ultimately, save as many lives as possible, aren’t like a light switch. Doctors, scientists, and public health officials say even now there are still too many unknown and unpredictable factors, and that even the best models still aren’t enough to predict when exactly the worst will be over. Testing still needs to expand greatly, and human behavior is wildly unpredictable. Models can change overnight.

“That’s why the numbers have all changed in the last 36 hours,” Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director of the Institute of Global Health at Northwestern University, told WBEZ on Monday. “There’s not going to be 100,000 deaths based on the model now. So, they’ve adjusted that model.”

While President Donald Trump and his loyalists across the country continue to say the country would “reopen” soon, if people stop social distancing and other mitigation efforts altogether or even ease up on them, it becomes possible for the number of COVID-19 cases to begin to rise again.

“You can fatigue on prevention strategies, you can burn out in them,” Dr. Ronald Hershow, director of the division of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told WBEZ. “To what extent will that happen and how will that influence future events regarding this part virus? There’s no way of predicting that exactly.”

Murphy said that social distancing efforts are working, but it’s hard to predict how well because of states that have less stringent restrictions or that put them in place later. Easing up now could lead to a spike later.

“You may have some states that have a double hump where they go down, they lift restrictions too soon and then they go up,” said Murphy.

Officials say for now and in the immediate future, Illinoisans must continue their efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus.

“As encouraging as these numbers are, the light at the end of the tunnel is only a pinprick and we will need continued diligence and social compliance before we can bend the curve and outrun this crisis,” Mayor Lightfoot said on Wednesday. “That’s why it is imperative we continue to be safe and act responsibly, as it is truly a matter of life and death.”+

For up to date information on COVID-19 in Chicago, please visit https://www.chicago.gov/city/en/sites/covid-19/home.html. For up to date information statewide, visit http://dph.illinois.gov/covid19.

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