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COVID update: McLean County health official warns of 'a very difficult winter'
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COVID update: McLean County health official warns of 'a very difficult winter'

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BLOOMINGTON — McLean County's COVID-19 positivity rate and hospitalizations rose again on Wednesday and the county's top public health official warned that Central Illinoisans could face "a very difficult winter."

"The positivity rate in our county and across our region continues to rise," said Jessica McKnight, administrator of the county health department. "We are experiencing substantial community spread and, most concerning, we have seen hospitalizations increasing, threatening to strain our health care system as we are entering flu season and going in to what is shaping up to be a very difficult winter."

Meanwhile, the health department has begun planning for when a limited number of doses of COVID-19 vaccine becomes available for staff and residents in long-term care facilities and critical workforce members who provide health care and other essential functions of society, said David Hopper, health department emergency preparedness coordinator.

"We do not yet have a concrete timeframe of when vaccines will be available in McLean County" for those populations, Hopper said Wednesday. "Based on the recent news from Pfizer and Moderna, it seems that a late December or early January estimated time frame is likely."

But a vaccine may not be available for the rest of the population until spring or summer 2021.

"Though we have the hope ahead of a vaccine around the corner, we still have a long way to go," McKnight continued. "The priority now should be what each one of us can do to help save the lives of our neighbors, family and friends. What smart choices can we make to help slow the spread. If we don't take this seriously now, we will see more sickness and sadly more people will die from this virus or because there are not hospital beds or health care professionals available."

McKnight reported Wednesday that 22 McLean County residents were hospitalized with COVID, four more than on Tuesday. Bloomington-Normal hospitals report that 72% of intensive care unit (ICU) beds and 78% of hospital beds overall are occupied, she said.

Bloomington-Normal's hospitals have surge capacity plans if patient numbers continue to increase. But hospital administrators have warned that increased hospitalizations could follow the rise in COVID cases.

McKnight reported 122 new COVID cases, meaning McLean County has had 7,008 confirmed cases of the virus since March 19.

McKnight also reported McLean County's 46th COVID-related death, a man in his 60s who was not associated with a long-term care facility.

Another 1,516 people were isolating at home on Wednesday and 5,424 have recovered from the virus since since March.

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But McLean County's seven-day positivity rate, the percent of people tested for the virus in the previous week who have tested positive, continued its rise. The rate was 14.9% on Wednesday, compared with 14.1% on Tuesday, McKnight reported.

Of the more than 122,300 tests of county residents since March, 5.7% have come back positive for the virus.

"The science is simple," McKnight said. "The virus spreads from person to person and if you are not in the physical presence of other people, the virus cannot spread...Stay at home as much as possible, wear a mask, follow guidance for isolation and quarantine, wash your hands and practice social distancing."

McKnight asked that people who test positive for the virus not wait to hear from a health department contract tracer to begin their isolation, which should be at least 10 days. People who have been within six feet of a person with a confirmed case of COVID for at least 15 minutes should quarantine for 14 days.

McKnight said the health department has 34 contact tracers and intends to hire another 21 by the end of the year.

Hopper said guidance from state and federal officials indicates that critical workforce members who would be prioritized to receive a vaccine could include workers in the following sectors: chemical, communications, critical manufacturing, emergency services, energy, financial services, food and agriculture, government facilities, health care and public health, information technology, transportation and water and wastewater systems.

The health department will be identifying points of contact within each sector to send pre-vaccine education and notices of vaccine availability, Hopper said. Depending on the number of critical personnel and the amount of vaccine available, the health department may have to prioritize within sectors.

Hopper also said that the health department has distributed about 4,200 Binax NOW antigen (rapid) COVID tests to long-term care facilities and health care providers.

Statewide, Illinois Department of Public Health reported 8,922 new COVID cases and 140 additional deaths, bringing the totals since March to 606,771 cases and 11,014 deaths.

As of Tuesday night, 5,953 Illinoisans were hospitalized with COVID, with 1,146 in ICU and 547 on ventilators.

The seven-day statewide COVID positivity rate was 11.9%.

Here are the 10 categories of new state COVID restrictions 

Contact Paul Swiech at 309-820-3275. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_swiech.

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