As COVID-19 hospitalizations rise across large swaths of Illinois and the nation, only about 11% of Chicago residents are up to date on vaccination against the virus.
The combination is concerning to many health officials as respiratory virus season amps up and the Christmas and New Year holidays approach.
Medical experts are also alarmed by a simultaneous rise in recent hospitalizations for other respiratory illnesses like RSV and the flu, with the CDC issuing an “urgent need” to raise vaccination coverage against all three viruses nationwide.
In anticipation of the coming holiday gatherings, which tend to increase the spread of respiratory viruses, local physicians are encouraging the public to get all vaccinations they’re eligible for, including the updated COVID booster shot, which targets currently circulating strains of the virus.
“I can’t stress the importance of vaccination enough,” said Dr. Colleen Nash, associate professor of pediatrics in the division of infectious diseases at Rush University Medical Center. “We’ve now been lucky enough to kind of live with COVID but still enjoy normal life and activities and things. And that is directly attributable, at least in part, to vaccinations. So I would really encourage people to do that if they haven’t already. It’s something that’s pretty easy and can make a huge difference.”
Nearly 50 Illinois counties — almost half the counties in the state — were reporting medium or high levels of hospitalizations for COVID-19, according to the latest Center for Disease Control and Prevention data from the week ending Dec. 9.
Cook County as well as the surrounding collar counties remained at low levels of hospitalizations for the virus.
Some of the state’s highest COVID hospitalization rates were in central Illinois, including the Springfield area, with Sangamon County reporting a 13% increase in hospital admission for COVID over the previous week.
The most recent data showed an additional 1,251 COVID hospital admissions were reported in Illinois; this was roughly equal to the 1,255 new COVID hospitalizations tracked statewide the previous week, when the hospitalization rate increased 22% compared with the week prior, concerning local health officials.
Ten Illinois counties were experiencing high rates of hospitalization, which is defined as more than 20 hospitalizations for COVID per 100,000 people. Another three dozen counties were at medium rates of hospitalization for the virus, with between 10 and 20 COVID hospitalizations per 100,000 people .
At the same time, uptake of the updated COVID vaccine locally and across the nation has been markedly low, with only about 11% of Chicago having received the most recent booster shot, according to Chicago Department of Public Health. The rate is even lower for minorities in Chicago, with just over 6% of Black residents and nearly 6% of Latino residents up to date on COVID vaccination, city health department data showed.
Updated COVID booster shot uptake is highest among city residents aged 75 and older, but particularly low among children, with a little over 5% of kids 4 and under and nearly 6% of 5- to 11-year-olds up to date on the COVID vaccine.
The city’s health department and Farragut Career Academy are hosting a free COVID and flu vaccine clinic on Wednesday from 3 to 7 p.m. at 2345 S. Christiana Ave.; online registration is encouraged, though “walk-ins are welcome,” according to a news release.
Nationwide, around 17% of adults and nearly 8% of children have received the updated COVID booster shot, according to the CDC.
The agency issued a health alert to hospitals and medical facilities last week, citing an urgency to increase vaccination coverage around the country for COVID, the flu and respiratory syncytial virus, also known as RSV.
“Low vaccination rates, coupled with ongoing increases in national and international respiratory disease activity … could lead to more severe disease and increased healthcare capacity strain in the coming weeks,” the CDC said in the alert.
In the past four weeks, hospitalization in all age groups has increased by 200% for the flu, just over 50% for COVID and 60% for RSV nationwide, according to the CDC alert. The highest rates of these respiratory illnesses have been tracked in southern states, with “increasing activity” in northern states, the agency said.
COVID hospital admissions recently increased about 3% around the country, with more than 23,000 hospital admissions for the virus recorded from Dec. 3 to Dec. 9, according to the CDC.
The agency recommends that everyone over 6 months old remains up to date on COVID vaccinations and gets the seasonal flu vaccine as well. Those aged 60 and up should consult a healthcare provider about taking the RSV vaccine, the CDC said.
Nationwide, flu shot uptake has been down among all age groups compared to the same period last year, the CDC reported; as of Nov. 18, there were roughly 7.4 million fewer flu vaccine doses administered to adults in pharmacies and healthcare practitioner offices than last year, according to the agency.
“Influenza, COVID-19, and RSV can result in severe disease, especially among unvaccinated persons. Infants, older adults, pregnant people, and people with certain underlying medical conditions remain at increased risk of severe COVID-19 and influenza disease,” the CDC alert said. “Infants and older adults remain at highest risk of severe RSV disease; it is the leading cause of infant hospitalization in the United States.”
A recent study from a professor in the Texas A&M University School of Public Health found most parents planned to vaccinate their children against RSV and the flu based on a September survey, with 40% of respondents saying they intended to vaccinate their kids against COVID.
“However, there are reasons to be skeptical that large numbers of parents will seek out vaccinations for their children, including growing vaccination hesitancy in general, the elimination of federal COVID-19 funding, and perceptions amongst many Americans that the pandemic is over,” said the study, which was released earlier this month. “As a result, the United States will likely experience a large number of cases for the three common but now vaccine-preventable diseases in the fall and winter of 2023–2024. By some estimates, the … ‘tripledemic’ of COVID-19, influenza, and RSV may lead to 100,000 deaths.”
The Illinois Department of Public Health last week recommended hospitals and medical facilities implement facility-wide masking in counties with high levels of COVID hospitalizations, per CDC guidance.
“With the alarming rise in respiratory viruses we are seeing across the state and the country, IDPH is recommending healthcare facilities take precautions to reduce the spread of these viruses and protect their patients, staffs and visitors,” the state health department’s direcotr, Dr. Sameer Vohra, said in a statement Thursday. “We are most concerned with healthcare facilities in counties with elevated respiratory virus transmission and hospitalization levels and recommend masking in patient care areas, especially in emergency departments and areas caring for patients who are immunocompromised.”
State health department officials also urged Illinois residents to get up to date on all vaccinations.
COVID, RSV and flu are “all concerning,” said Dr. Arti Barnes, chief medical officer for the Illinois Department of Public Health.
“Flu rates are going up in adolescents and adults,” he said. “RSV is still causing the most hospitalizations in 0-to-4 year-olds but older adults bear the brunt of deaths from RSV each season.”
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He added that COVID was the second leading cause of death from respiratory illness in Illinois after pneumonia, and older adults have the highest risk of death from COVID.
“Holiday hosts are urged to enhance the safety of guests by providing proper indoor ventilation, encouraging good hand hygiene and reminding guests to cover coughs and sneezes,” the state health department said in the statement. “If someone is feeling symptoms of a respiratory virus — such as coughing, sneezing, sore throat, a runny nose or fever — it’s best to get tested and stay home so as not to spread illness.”
In the past four years since the first COVID cases were detected, more than 772 million cases have been confirmed and nearly 7 million deaths have been attributed to the virus internationally, according to the World Health Organization.
The “relatively good news is that the virus is not as virulent as it once was” and the public now has more immunity from vaccinations and previous infections, said Dr. Elizabeth McNally, director of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine Center for Genetic Medicine.
“So most infections are limited. Hospitals still have to take precautions, and having an infection is going to be worse in people with chronic illness or people with immunosuppression,” she added. “Hospitals are still operating at very high capacity, so please be patient with your health care providers.”