By: Ted Dabrowki and John Klingner
Six months into COVID-19, the media and Illinois’ political elite continue to push cases and the case positivity rate as the key statistics of the pandemic. So much so, that Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot have threatened shut downs all over again if the case numbers continue to go up.
The persistent reporting of rising cases and high positivity rates invoke fear, but the public should know that cases alone don’t matter. What really matters are hospitalizations and deaths. And those have yet to rise in Illinois, even if cases have risen significantly for more than a month and a half.
Gov. Pritzker warned last week that about cases, “…right now things are not headed in the right direction.” Lightfoot said much the same last month, saying Chicago was “dangerously close to going back to a dangerous state of conditions” and threatened more recently to “take steps backwards.”
It should be no surprise that cases have increased in Illinois as it partially reopened parts of the economy. But as the data below shows, there are no causes for concern yet.
What’s up with cases, hospitalizations and deaths in Illinois
Cases have been on the increase for about 50 days, a reflection of Illinois reopening its economy as part of Phase 3.
On June 18, Illinois experienced a seven-day average low of 596 cases. By August 9, cases had jumped to 1,734 – three times higher than on June 18.
Those stats would be worrisome if Illinois were seeing a corresponding increase in hospitalizations, but that has not been the case. Nearly a month and a half after the increase in cases began, the state now has 433 fewer hospitalizations than it did on June 18 (see below graphic).
If rising cases reflect a problem, we haven’t yet seen it in hospitalizations.
Deaths measured on a seven-day average also have failed to move up noticeably – even if you take an extended lag-time into consideration. On August 9, the state had 33 less deaths than the average on June 18. In fact, the seven-day average of deaths in Illinois hit their lowest point on August 4, almost seven weeks after cases began rising again.
We’re not implying that more hospitalizations and deaths won’t follow the increase in cases, as has happened in states like Texas, Florida and Arizona recently. A rise is inevitable in Illinois as the state loosens its strict and protracted shutdown.
What’s clear, however, is that cases in Illinois are currently decoupled from hospitalizations and deaths.
It’s worth noting that Illinois’ positivity rate is also a poor indicator of trouble. Positivity is pushed and pulled in different directions depending on changes in where testing is concentrated, on whom is being tested and the volume of testing. If a particular region begins focusing on problem hotspots, for example, the rate would spike up, though that might not be representative of the region as a whole.
So unless the rate is accompanied by more detailed demographic data that shows which populations are begin infected, positivity by itself doesn’t mean much.
Good trends in Illinois
If Illinois’ trend continues – higher cases but continued low hospitalizations and low death totals – it may be that several good things are happening.
Increased testing across the state may be picking up more asymptomatic or low-level infections. That would be particularly true if those infected are younger, healthier people.
It could be that Illinois is finally protecting retirement home residents better, which was a major cause of deaths earlier in the pandemic. More than 54 percent of the state’s 7,600 deaths are tied to retirement homes.
Or it may be Illinois doctors are getting better at treating COVID patients who do end up becoming hospitalized.
On that first point, we can only guess as to the ages of the most recent cases. Gov. Pritzker and his staff make it impossible for the public to know who the newly infected are – the IDPH only covers the demographics of the state’s cumulative totals.
Compare that to Florida, where the state publishes the average age of cases daily, along with a host of other demographic data so residents can see just who is currently the most impacted by the virus.
The median age of Floridians infected by COVID-19 daily, for example, has fallen to the low 40s, down from the mid 60s only a few months ago.
More shutdowns under Pritzker and Lightfoot’s orders would be a second disaster for Illinois. Businesses that barely survived the last one would be wiped out, more jobs would be lost and government revenues would collapse further.
Moreover, it’s not even good science. Remember this graphic?
The whole purpose of the lockdown was not to decrease the number of overall COVID-19 cases but to spread them out over time. Experts across the nation explained early in the pandemic that everyone was eventually going to be infected if no vaccine was rapidly developed.
The bottom line is this: Cases and positivity rates by themselves don’t matter. What really matters are hospitalizations and our ability to handle them well.
Read more about Illinois and COVID-19:
- The facts support in-person learning for most Illinois schools. Case study: New Trier High School District 203
- COVID-19 spreads to half of all Chicagoland retirement homes. How did this happen?
- Mayor Lightfoot doesn’t get it. A broke Chicago can’t ‘eliminate inequalities’ or ‘expand opportunities.’
- What’s Illinois’ true COVID-19 fatality rate?