Two years later, COVID breaks death records in Champaign County

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This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. Note the spikes that adorn the outer surface of the virus, which impart the look of a corona surrounding the virion, when viewed electron microscopically. A novel coronavirus, named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China in 2019. The illness caused by this virus has been named coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

As the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic begins, cases plunge after the deadliest month for Champaign County just this year.

Nearly 62,000 cases.

At least 292 deaths.

Those are just a few of the numbers reported two years after the first known case of COVID-19 in Champaign County in March 2020.

The Champaign-Urbana Public Health District (CUPHD) began reporting on COVID-19 cases on March 17, 2020 when the first case was diagnosed.

The first death in the county was on April 7, 2020, just over two weeks after Governor JB Pritzker’s stay-at-home order. Six people died from COVID-19 that month. 

There were 18,564 cases and 132 deaths in the first year of the pandemic. Although there was a steep decline in cases and deaths in the summer of 2021, new variants of the virus brought the cases and deaths to higher levels in the second year. 

Deaths rose to 295 in the second year, an increase of 23% despite the wide availability of vaccines. Another 43,226 cases were reported, a 132% percent increase.

Daily case charts resemble a roller coaster

State data shows the first week of September 2020 was one of the first larger surges, with over 1,000 cases as students returned to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Then, during the holiday season in November and December, there was a record spike in deaths with 30 and 26 respectively. 

Off the heels of the busiest months of COVID so far, the county health district said the data collection process has not significantly changed and undergoes a robust verification process.

“From the very beginning, we have only reported data that we have verified,” CUPHD Epidemiologist Awais Vaid said. “Our data reporting is based on the current information we have. If there is a question or concern, we will not report until that information has been clarified with the IDPH system or our local hospital partners.” 

Vaid also said the health district will regularly clean data to purge any out-of-County records that may have been added accidentally.

Pritzker’s Restore Illinois plan rolled out in five distinct phases. Champaign County, part of the Illinois Department of Public Health’s Region 6 for COVID re-openings, moved through the end phases in the first few months of 2021. Vaccine phase 1B also began for ages 65 and up and frontline essential workers. 

The Delta variant entered the county on July 15, 2021 according to a health district announcement. Since that date, daily cases steadily increased throughout the beginning of September, then began to decrease throughout October. 

Around Thanksgiving, daily cases began to dramatically increase to hundreds a day. Daily cases peaked on January 6, 2022 at 1,263 cases. Omicron variant infections were blamed for a major national surge, but not detected in the county until late December. 

Deaths peaked at the highest number on record at 39 in December 2021. The previous peaks for deaths were in November and December in 2020. 

Since December, deaths steadily declined to just three in February this year.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention loosened mask guidelines on February 25, 2022, which some businesses in the area used as a basis for face covering policies. 

Lag times in reporting

Because Illinois’s public health department has different reporting lines for its health data than the county-level, there is often a lag time between the two available resources. 

“CUPHD verifies each death record through the Vital Records at CUPHD and confirms with Hospitals,” Vaid said. “We also make sure we are only reporting people that are County residents. Sometimes we are lagging in reporting if the person passed away in a different state and the information has not yet transferred to Illinois and then to the Local County of residence.”

As of March 30, 2022, the county reports 292 deaths, but the Illinois Department of Public Health reports 287 deaths.

How other counties fared

Other nearby counties saw different trends over time, with some decreasing their deaths in the second year compared to the first year. Vermilion, like Champaign, saw an increase in deaths during the second year. Deaths doubled and now total 366 deaths, although its population is about 75,000 compared to Champaign’s 209,000. 

Douglas County, with a population of about 19,000, decreased deaths by about 40% in the second year, which totaled 55 overall.

Macon County’s deaths from COVID-19 decreased by 18% in the second year, but totaled 338, although its population is about 100,000. Peoria County, with a population of about 179,000,  decreased deaths by 11%, but totaled 510 overall. 

The state, too, went in the opposite direction of Champaign and Vermilion counties. Illinois reported a decrease of about 42% in deaths in the second year. But there were 33,180 total deaths from COVID-19 in the state as of March 17, 2022, two years after the first case.

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