COVID’s toll in Champaign County as emergency ends: 325 deaths, 86,946 cases, unknown number of long haulers

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A tent and signs indicate a Covid-19 testing site at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign's Alice Campbell Alumni Center on Friday, July 31, 2020. The University is conducting free saliva tests for faculty, staff and students with results typically known within 48 hours.

As the COVID-19 pandemic emergency measures ended this month, Champaign County had reported 325 COVID-related deaths from 86,946 cases over the past three years.

With a population of around 205,000, it means the virus infected nearly half of the people in Champaign County if each case was unique. Officially, there were 86,064 cases listed as recovered, but the definition of recovered in Illinois is that a person who caught COVID is still alive after 42 days.

Over three years after the COVID-19 pandemic began, Illinois recorded 36,850 deaths from 4,136,659 cases as of May 10, the day before President Joe Biden declared the end of the public health emergency on May 11. The World Health Organization declared the end of the Public Health Emergency of International Concern on May 5. The U.S. national emergency ended on April 11.

COVID-related deaths in the county increased in the first two years with 91 in 2020 and 145 in 2021, but decreased to 77 in 2022. However, January 2022 was the deadliest month of the whole pandemic in the county. Only 12 have been reported so far this year. 

About 435,555 COVID-19 vaccine doses had been administered in Champaign County as of May 5. About 66% of the 209,983 residents have completed a primary series, while only 22% have received a bivalent booster dose.

Rob Davies, the director of planning and research at the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, said the COVID situation has improved over the past three years, given a smaller number of deaths and hospital admissions in the past winter. However, he said this doesn’t mean that COVID is gone.

“Some people might be wondering if the COVID impact in the winter will look the same as the flu, and I don’t think we’re there yet,” Davies said. “We know that you know COVID is not unusual, it’s not unexpected. We will still probably continue to see some small waves.”

At the same time, Davies said he sees less reliability in case numbers as many people use at-home tests which are usually not reported to the local public health. Indeed, most public testing centers shut down over the past 18 months, with hospitals and clinics remaining as reliable providers. 

Public health agencies have also relied on wastewater testing as a way of measuring the prevalence of the virus in certain regions. The CDC website shows Illinois has 90 sites where samples are taken.

As testing access dwindled nationally, COVID-related deaths were still regularly reported per the emergency orders. In the U.S., there were 1,128,404 deaths as of April 12, and 2021 was the deadliest year with 463,266, about 41%. 

In Illinois, 2020 was the deadliest year with 16,721, about 45%.

Director of McKinley Health Center Awais Vaid, formerly of the health district, said while COVID has not completely been eliminated, the situation on campus has significantly improved.

“The number of complicated cases we see in the community are lower and that’s the same trend we see on campus as well,” Vaid said. “We don’t see as many individuals coming into McKinley Health Center with COVID symptoms and most of the individuals test positive for COVID by taking the at home rapid test. They are able to get over it over a period of just a few days just by taking rest and over the counter medications.”

According to the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, Champaign County is currently at a low community level and moderate community transmission. Community transmission refers to how much the virus is spreading in a community, while community level measures the effects of COVID-19 in terms of stress on the healthcare system.

State and local data reveals patterns but data collection diminishing

A screenshot of the beginning of the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District’s COVID-19 dashboard. Screenshot taken May 11, 2023.

The end of the declaration of the COVID-pandemic also means the end of data boards that have been available throughout the pandemic. During the pandemic, the public health emergency mandated health departments to feed data to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Data would flow from county and state levels to the CDC and national dashboards. 

The quality of data for each county varied by how many resources an individual county had available to them. However, the end of the emergency means that counties are no longer required to send their data to the CDC. 

Some counties may choose to display their own information or continue sending it to the CDC by choice. The CDC said it will rely on sentinel surveillance programs to continue monitoring COVID trends. 

According to Carle Health, the healthcare system had 21 patients with COVID-19, including one in ICU, when it stopped collecting data on February 13 earlier this year. All Carle hospitals had over 6,000 patients with COVID-19 discharged, while 835 hospitalized patients with COVID-19 died.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign stopped collecting testing data in February just as the positivity was on another rise with over 19% on February 7, while the tests had declined to less than 150 a day.

Davies said the public health district will change the updates on its COVID dashboard from a weekly to a monthly basis. The dashboard provided case numbers, vaccine information, transmission levels and death data, broken down by different variables like month, age, race and sex.

The first recorded case of the virus in Illinois was on January 24, 2020, and the state mandated the stay-at-home order for its 12.5 million residents about two months later on March 21. Champaign County had its first case at the same time in Gail Rogers, who shared her story with CU-CitizenAccess later that year.

Cases followed a seasonal pattern, with spikes often occurring around the same times each year, typically around the beginning and end of the summer, and the months leading into the new year. 

Cases first began to spike around May with 146.5 weekly cases, but the state slowly began opening up later that month. By November 15, a much-larger spike in positive cases resulted in 701.3 weekly cases.

After the holiday season, cases began to fall in 2021, going as low as 14.4 weekly cases on June 21. But beginning in September, cases propelled through the new year and caused the biggest spike in cases recorded on January 9 with 1,888.9 weekly cases reported. January 2022 marked the deadliest month from COVID in Champaign County with 40 deaths. 

But cases ramped down quickly afterwards, reaching 44.3 weekly cases by March 20, 2022. A small spike occurred in May, reaching 333.9 weekly cases, but hasn’t surpassed that rate since. Last December, the spike in cases only reached 191.2 weekly cases, and it has only declined from there.

Over 28% of the county’s COVID cases are among young adults in their twenties. However, people at 70 and older account for around 66% of all COVID deaths to date.

About 52% of COVID cases with known gender happen among women. Of the Champaign County residents who had COVID, 55% are white, 16% are Black, 9% are Asian and 8% are Hispanic.

Lessons learned — some local resources and strategies to remain, evolve

With the federal emergencies declared over, Davies said most COVID guidance in the county will remain the same. There will also be minor changes to the guidelines for schools, early childhood education centers and local or long-term care facilities.

“I think we can expect to see a simplified metric in the near future with some updated guidance for the general public and our health care facility,” Davies said.

Davies said he recommends people to stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccines. He mentioned that COVID-19 vaccine effectiveness has been observed waning against hospitalization over time, especially for older adults.

“For those who are at high risk of getting very sick, I would always advise that they speak with their healthcare provider about additional prevention actions that they can take,” Davies said.

Looking back on the early response to the pandemic, Davies said there were supply chain and organization struggles in the early days. In future exercises, Davies said the district will need to focus on timely and equitable resource distribution and consistent messaging across jurisdictional boundaries.

Davies recognized the district’s numerous partners who helped it reach a successful level of vaccination surveillance. Davies said these include University of Illinois health experts who “put the university and the county at the forefront of testing,” as well as local businesses and faith-based organizations that helped with essential communication.

“A lot of efforts from the community really, really helped to make a better response,” Davies said. “We had a lot of support from the community. We could not have done this alone.”

Even though testing centers have shut down across the university, McKinley’s Vaid said at-home rapid tests will continue to be available to faculty and students at various locations on campus. This will continue throughout the summer semester, and said he hopes next year as well. 

McKinley is always a resource for students and is open six days a week for anyone who wants to get checked out for COVID by a provider. It also conducts COVID testing there. 

Vaid said that there are several lessons we can take away from the pandemic. 

“From my perspective, being so international, diseases spread pretty quickly. We saw this with COVID within days and within weeks of the first case in Wuhan, China, it spread across the world,” he said. “We are living in a very international, very close knit community, so things spread pretty quickly. So to be prepared and be aware of what is happening not just in Champaign, but internationally as well — it is important for us to better prepare to be ready.” 

He said it is also important for government organizations to have good connections in order to act quickly in emergencies. He believes that one of the reasons Champaign was able to respond to the COVID pandemic more quickly than other places was because of the established connection between other medical providers, government and the police force. 

“We were all on the same page when we were giving advice and that really helps. You cannot get to know each other in the middle of a pandemic so you have to establish these things well before something happens,” he said.

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