1 year since 1st COVID vaccine given in Chicago, hospitalizations surge again amid new variants

Can you still get COVID with the vaccine? Unvaccinated individuals more likely to be hospitalized, become seriously ill
CHICAGO (WLS) -- Vaccination efforts this past year have been remarkable and historic, but the virus continues to thrive among those who continue to say no.

Wednesday, Dec. 15 marks one year since Illinois first started administering doses of the COVID vaccine. The first vaccine in the state was administered into the arm of Dr. Marina Del Rios at Loretto Hospital in the city's Austin neighborhood.

As Del Rios took that first dose, many felt they were witnessing the beginning of the end of the pandemic.

"It was important to show my community that I was willing to be the first one, that there was no fear in getting vaccinated," Del Rios said.

"It was important to show my community that I was willing to be the first one, that there was no fear in getting vaccinated, that the science was sound and that the vaccines were effective and that that was what we thought would be the beginning of the end of the pandemic," emergency physician Dr. Marina Del Rios said.

But unfortunately, the anniversary comes as hospitalizations are on the rise again. Since Thanksgiving, hospitalizations across Illinois are up more than 80%. Many of these COVID patients are unvaccinated and very ill.

"Those are overwhelmingly the persons that are being hospitalized, that are contributing to those growing numbers in our hospitals with complications, even leading towards death," said Dr. Gregory Huhn, with Cook County Health.

With Christmas only 10 days away, there's a growing concern there could be yet another surge in the number of COVID cases in Illinois, especially with the new contagious omicron variant.

The first case in suburban Cook County was reported Tuesday. The person is asymptomatic and has received at least two doses of the vaccine, Cook County officials said.

RELATED: Omicron Chicago: New COVID variant detected in city as Illinois virus hospitalizations surge

Wednesday marks the first anniversary of the first COVID-19 vaccine doses arriving in Illinois, but, with statewide hospitalizations tripling since early November, officials are offering a warning.

"Today is a day of celebration," Chicago's top doctor, Allison Arwady, said. "Seventy-four percent of all eligible Chicagoans, meaning over the age of five, have had at least a first dose."

Despite a year later and plenty of supply, 650,000 Chicagoans remain unvaccinated, which Dr. Arwady said is more than enough to drive the Delta and Omicron surges.

"The fact that we still have 50 Chicagoans a day being hospitalized, five to six a day dying of COVID, I didn't think we would be there a year ago," she said.

Dr. Arwady admitted that a year ago, with a lifesaving and very effective vaccine available, she never thought we would be entering another holiday worried about COVID.

The city's top doctor added that she never anticipated how partisan and politicized the vaccine would become.

"It's been really sad to see people trust a lot of misinformation," she said.

This as the stated reports 79 new deaths Wednesday, the deadliest 24-hours in 10 months. A toll higher than in some entire countries, including the Netherland (74), Canada (41) and Spain (8).

"I'm sad, as I know everybody else is, to be going into a second holiday still worried about COVID and still in a surge," the doctor said.

Arwady said she believes the city's efforts targeting hard-hit neighborhoods through the Protect Chicago Plus program was the right approach to get as many people vaccinated. The city has relied on people like Griselda Piedra, who lost her brother to COVID, to become advocates for their own communities.

"Every day we are out there, knocking on doors, we are doing events because there are still people out there who do not think it's real," said Piedra, who advocated in the Pilsen neighborhood.

While getting more first shots in arms is a priority, Dr. Arwady is worried about omicron producing more breakthrough cases and reinfections.

Illinois also confirmed its second case of the Omicron variant Wendesday. Officials said the suburban Cook County resident is asymptomatic and was fully vaccinated, though it's unclear if that person had received a booster.

Officials declined to say in which suburb that person lives. Samples from a handful of close contacts of that individual are now being screened for Omicron.

"It's very important that people just take extra precautions, especially now because, yes, our hospitals are filling up -- with unvaccinated people, I might add," Gov. JB Pritzker said.

At Edward and Elmhurst hospitals, the number of COVID in-patients is at an 11-month high.

"They get tested late. They don't get treated with monoclonal antibodies, and they end up in the hospital when they're really desperate, and they can't breathe," said Dr. Jonathan Pinsky, medical director of Infection Control at Edward Hospital.

But, within this year, the vaccine rollout has made progress.

With more than 18 million doses administered statewide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 71% of the state received their first dose of the vaccine. Nearly 63% are fully vaccinated and more than 30% have the booster shot.

WATCH | COVID vaccine race gap narrows, but booster disparities remain
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So far, IDPH reports in Chicago that 49% of the booster recipients have been white people, a far greater percentage than other racial and ethnic groups.



Although city and state data reveal wide disparities in vaccinations by race and ethnicity, the gap has narrowed over time.

According to the Chicago Department of Public Health, 70% of Asian residents in Chicago are fully vaccinated, 67% of the white community, 58% of Latinx residents and 48% of Black residents.

IDPH data shows similar rates and disparities statewide. Now, there's a push to close the racial gap when it comes to the booster shot.

So far, the Illinois Department of Public Health reports in Chicago 49% of the booster recipients have been white people, a far greater percentage than other racial and ethnic groups.

With COVID cases climbing once again and a new variant, there's concern about the impact on vulnerable communities.

Mark Hooks is a registered nurse in the ER at Loretto Hospital on Chicago's West Side.

"We are a very busy emergency room in a community that is underserved medically, so whenever there is a surge, it stretches our system," Hooks said.

Emergency physician Dr. Marina Del Rios said the pandemic exposed longstanding racial disparities in healthcare that need to be addressed.

"We need to invest more in our public health infrastructure and that is to have more of a vision for prevention and not for reacting when things have already happened," she said.

To protect against the new variant, the city is urging anyone above 16 years old to get boosted. So far, only 30% of those eligible in Chicago have received the booster shot.

Ahead of the holiday break, CPS is preparing to send thousands of students home with COVID testing kits to be taken and mailed to a lab for results before they return to the classroom.

How accurate are at-home COVID tests?



Doctors have said at-home rapid antigen tests, which are available at drug stores, are less sensitive than lab PCR tests but provide some protection this holiday.

"For things like gatherings, you can feel confident that folks who are coming, they are unlikely to have COVID at a level that they're going to spread it," said Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health.

But the best tool remains vaccination and a booster.

At Erie Family Health Centers, the number of shots administered has doubled in the past two weeks.

"It is not too late to get your booster and feel you have additional protection in place for Christmas and holiday travels," said Caroline Hoke, chief clinical officer at Erie.

At one clinic, 16 and 17-year-olds inoculated with Pfizer can now get their boosters.

"We've learned along the way, and we've been able to adjust our message, adjust our outreach, and to make sure that everybody has, from trusted sources, the right information to make the right decision to get vaccinated," Huhn said.

Arwady and other officials marked the one-year anniversary of the vaccine rollout in Illinois with an event at a health clinic in West Elsdon Wednesday.

WATCH: CDPH Commissioner Dr. Arwady marks 1 year of COVID vaccines


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CDPH Commissioner Dr. Arwady marked 1 year of COVID vaccines Wednesday.

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