As COVID-19 cases in Illinois peaked in early May, downstate residents made up an average of 10% of the new cases each day.
Over the past week, with cases surging once again, downstate residents account for almost 40% of the state’s daily new case counts.
“Hospitals all over the state are watching and are concerned,” said Danny Chun, a spokesman for the Illinois Hospital Association. “They’ve got surge plans in place, but would prefer not to use them. They’d prefer people wear their masks, social distance, avoid crowds and wash their hands.”
With more than 800 new cases Monday, residents of the metropolitan area – Chicago, suburban Cook County and the five collar counties – shouldn’t let down their guard. But in recent weeks, the distribution of cases around the state has shifted.
On Monday, nearly 35% of the state’s 1,298 new cases were diagnosed in Illinois residents living outside the metro area, according to Illinois Department of Public Health figures. Three months ago on May 3, downstate residents made up just 9.5% of the new daily cases.
IDPH officials also reported Monday that 10 more Illinois residents had died from the respiratory disease. Six of them from the downstate counties of Adams, LaSalle, Peoria and Winnebago, and four were from Cook County.
That brings the state’s death toll to 7,526 since the outbreak began, with 183,241 Illinois residents who have tested positive.
Monday’s new cases come from a batch of 28,475 test results for a daily positivity rate of 4.6%, the highest single-day rate since early June.
The state’s seven-day average positivity rate now stands at 4%, the highest since June 11.
The grim findings come as Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced a new $5 million mask-wearing awareness campaign Monday.
“As much as we’d like it, this virus isn’t going away on its own,” Pritzker said at a morning news conference announcing the awareness campaign. “We need greater compliance if we’re going to overcome this.”
The campaign slogan, “It Only Works if You Wear It,” will be featured via a multitude of media outlets and in multiple languages, officials said.
The $5 million comes from federal funds intended for the states to use at their discretion to fight the spread of the virus, Pritzker said.
“A mask is no different from wearing a seat belt while driving or a helmet when riding a bike,” Pritzker said. “People who refuse to wear a mask, people who enter public premises, they should be reminded again by police, and ultimately if they’re refusing they’re putting other people at risk and it’s worthy of considering a fine at a local level.”
The governor is considering asking the legislature to codify fines for mask scofflaws.
At least 11 downstate counties had exceeded multiple warning levels of increased risk of exposure to COVID-19 last week. Those areas are at risk of having business operations scaled back and public gatherings restricted.
From July 28 through Monday, the state has averaged 1,512 new cases of COVID-19 a day, according to IDPH figures. Chicago and the suburbs averaged 946 of those new cases each day while the state’s 96 downstate counties averaged 566 new cases a day.
By comparison, when the state was averaging 2,511 new cases each day from May 3 to May 9, Chicago and the suburbs were responsible for 2,261 of those cases daily. Downstate counties averaged just 250 cases a day during that time.
State health officials blamed the outbreaks in downstate counties on “business operations and activities posing higher risk for disease spread, including school graduation ceremonies, a rise in cases among late teens and 20s, parties and social gatherings, people going to bars, long-term care outbreaks, clusters of cases associated with restaurants and churches, and big sports events including soccer, golf, and softball tournaments.”
Meanwhile, the Cook County Public Health Department issued new guidance to businesses as new cases begin to spike in the suburban portion of the county.
Bars that don’t serve food are being asked to only serve outdoors, while all eating and drinking establishments are asked to limit the size of parties to six people. Spas and barber shops should discontinue shaves and facials, the health department advised. Fitness centers should limit indoor class sizes to less than 10.
“If we don’t remain vigilant, we will face far more restrictive mitigation efforts and we will see more disease and more death,” said Dr. Rachel Rubin, the county health department’s senior medical officer. “We are encouraging everyone to follow the ongoing guidelines and businesses to immediately adopt our recommendations, so that they don’t become requirements.”