Most of the Chicago region is now back in the “high” threat level for Covid-19 transmission; but it comes as some of the metrics that used to drive decision making about the virus may be as murky as it was during the early days of the pandemic.

With the widespread availability of at-home test kits, most positive results don’t get reported to the state and therefore aren’t included in Illinois’ official case count.

“From the start of the pandemic, we have never known the ‘real’ or total COVID infection numbers because we have always missed people with COVID who did not test for a variety of reasons, including being asymptomatic,” Illinois Department of Public Health spokesman Mike Claffey told WGN Investigates. “Home testing has increased this proportion.” 

Instead, IDPH now looks at the weekly case rate (now at 260 cases per 100,000) and other factors.

Which numbers matter?

As vaccines and boosters provide protection against the worst outcomes of the virus, hospitalizations and deaths become a key marker in determining the threat to the community.  However, the Illinois Department of Public Health still doesn’t distinguish which patients are hospitalized due to Covid-19 illness and which ones simply tested positive while being treated for an unrelated condition.  

There are just under 1,500 hospitalized patients in Illinois who have also tested positive for Covid, roughly one-fifth the number during the last significant surge in January.  There have been fewer than 500 patients with Covid in Illinois hospitals during valleys of the pandemic.  Just 6% of intensive care beds in Illinois are occupied by Covid-19 patients.

State health officials continue to defend their broad definition of a “Covid patient” even if it doesn’t provide the most accurate picture of the number of people who are seriously sick as a direct result of the virus. “Since someone admitted to the hospital with COVID (even if not for COVID) requires isolation and use of PPE by hospital staff, it adds to the hospital’s pandemic load,” IDPH’s Claffey said.  “That is why we consider it to be a worthwhile measure of hospital strain.”

Chicago public health director Dr. Allison Arwady said hospital capacity remains a key factor in her decision making.  “I feel strongly that you can’t just kind of cry wold all the time,” Dr. Arwady told the New York Times.  “I want to save the requirements around masks or updating vaccine for when there’s a significant change,” she said.

Unvaccinated still at highest risk

At Rush University Medical Center’s main hospital downtown, 18 patients were hospitalized with Covid-19 as of Friday.  “For months the people needing to be hospitalized have either been unvaccinated or have an underlying condition,” said Rush spokesman Charlie Jolie.

Only 30 of the 809 beds at NorthShore University Health System’s four legacy hospitals are occupied by Covid patients and only one of them is in intensive care, according to a spokesperson.

Deaths remain flat

Another sign the latest virus variant may pose less of a threat is that despite its high transmission level, the number of Covid-related deaths in Illinois has remained relatively flat.  On average, fewer than 10 people are dying each day in Illinois… a steep decline from the winter surge when the average reached 130 deaths per day.

Vaccine, booster interest waning:

Despite the proven protection offered by vaccines and booster shots, just 65% of Illinois’ population is fully vaccinated and only a little more than half of that population has received a booster, according to IDPH data.

Previous infection also provides some level of protection.