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New COVID-19 surge can be avoided through masking, social distancing, Southern Illinois University doctor says
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New COVID-19 surge can be avoided through masking, social distancing, Southern Illinois University doctor says

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SPRINGFIELD  —Increases in COVID-19 cases and test-positivity rates locally and in Illinois' other urban centers indicate Illinois may be heading into a new surge, a Springfield doctor said Thursday.

Fatigue among the public when it comes to mask-wearing and social distancing, along with the uncertain effect of COVID-19 variants, may be fueling the rises even as vaccinations ramp up locally and statewide, according to Dr. Vidya Sundareshan, an infectious-diseases specialist at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.

"We are worried about another surge," she said, adding that it's too soon to know for sure whether the rate of new cases and other indicators of COVID-19 transmission will continue to rise.

"We're at a point where we can still do something about it by taking precautions," she said. Mask-wearing, social distancing and avoiding non-essential travel remain important weapons against the pandemic, she said.

The share of COVID-19 tests among Sangamon County residents coming back positive reached 7.3% on Wednesday — a fivefold increase compared with 10 days ago, and a seven-day rolling average of 2.6%, according to the Sangamon County Department of Public Health. A similar trend has been seen among Menard County residents.

Sundareshan, a medical adviser to the county health department, said statistics for the county can vary by day because of the relatively moderate population size of the Springfield area.

But the overall rise may be the beginning of a trend that the county hasn't seen since the late fall and early winter, when COVID-19 cases and deaths peaked after the first wave in spring 2020, she said.

Daily reports of new cases among county residents also have generally risen — from as few as eight new cases in one day over the past two weeks to 24 new cases reported Wednesday and 55 positive cases Thursday.

Farmers are getting some help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.It will distribute $11.5 billion to support smaller farmers affected by the pandemic.The department also increased payments being made to cattle producers and farmers who grow crops, like corn and soybeans. 

The Illinois Department of Public Health also has reported what it considers troubling increases statewide.

Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the state health department, said in a statement, "We are starting to see some of the decreasing trends plateau, and even increases in test positivity and COVID-19 hospitalizations."

She added: "These metrics are signaling a change in direction, and while it's a small change, we don't want to go down the same path we've seen before and have a third wave."

Significant increases in COVID-19-related deaths haven't been recorded yet in Sangamon County or statewide, but Sundareshan said deaths are considered a "lagging indicator" of disease transmission because deaths can occur weeks or even months after infection.

She said Sangamon County is among the state's top performers in vaccinating its population, but she feared that the growing availability of vaccine and the length of the pandemic are leading to lax attitudes about COVID-19.

Twenty-two percent of the county's population, or 42,600 people, has been fully vaccinated, compared with 15.1% statewide, according to IDPH, but Sundareshan said, "We still have a long way to go."

"Herd immunity" against COVID-19 will be reached when at least 70% of people are vaccinated, Sundareshan said.

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People younger than 16 aren't eligible for vaccine yet in the United States, and clinical trials on that age group are underway.

Sundareshan said she has seen more people in Springfield improperly wearing masks, and she suspects that more are traveling across the country and gathering maskless and in close quarters in groups of 10 or more.

Getting together without masks is safer when the groups are smaller and everyone involved has been fully vaccinated, she said.

All of that activity can increase the risk of transmission, regardless of whether someone is fully vaccinated, she said.

Information from contact tracing locally indicates more transmission may be occurring in homes and among young people at sporting and social events, she said.

Transmission among patrons and staff at bars and restaurants apparently isn't increasing, she said, adding that those businesses in general appear to be enforcing recommended precautions.

The degree to which vaccination prevents someone from passing on the virus is unknown, she said. And while the three COVID-19 vaccines available — Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — appear to be effective in protecting against severe illness and death from COVID-19 variants, the degree of protection may be lower, she said.

"More studies need to be done," she said.

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Ezike's statement said Illinoisans "cannot let our guard down, especially with new variants circulating. ... There are not enough people vaccinated yet that we can put aside all the public-health measures that have carried us this far. We're not out of the woods yet, so please continue to wear your masks, avoid large crowds, keep six feet of distance, get tested if you have been part of a gathering, and get vaccinated as soon as you can."

Pritzker told reporters Wednesday, when he got his own COVID-19 shot, that the ease in some Phase 4 guidelines for businesses and public gatherings statewide may be tightened by region if indications of COVID-19 transmission increase.

He said information about COVID-19 indicators, testing and vaccinations is available at coronavirus.illinois.gov. A statewide hotline for people needing help setting up a vaccine appointment is available 6 a.m. to midnight seven days a week at (833) 621-1284.

The state reported 2,190 new confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 on Thursday and 35 additional deaths. There have been a total of 1.22 million cases and 21,171 confirmed deaths of people with COVID-19.

The seven-day test-positivity rate is 3.2%, and as of Wednesday night, 1,251 people with COVID-19 were hospitalized in Illinois, including 267 in intensive-care units and 119 on ventilators.

A total of 5.15 million vaccines have been administered statewide, with 118,544 daily doses reported Wednesday.


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