COVID-19 still in Champaign County and tracked, but many cases go unreported

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McKinley Health Center on the University of Illinois campus.

As of Dec. 4, a total of 89,129 confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Champaign County since the spring of 2020, according to the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District website.

Of the confirmed cases, there have been 336 deaths since the start of the pandemic, 11 more since May of this year, when CU-CitizenAccess last reported on COVID at the end of the federal emergency.

“We started reporting in 2020,” Robert Davies, the district’s director of planning and research, said. “We have data for all recorded cases starting back in March 2020.”

Of the 89,129 cases, 88,459 have recovered from the virus, according to public health data. Davies said that someone is considered recovered from the virus six days after the onset date and if they are no longer symptomatic.

Since the start of this year, over 4,800 cases have been lab-confirmed by the health district.

“We would get results of clinic or lab-based tests,” Davies said. “The at-home tests are not reportable.”

Because the at-home tests do not get reported, Davies said it is unclear how many people test positive for the virus still.

“There’s really no way of knowing how many people are testing positive at home with those over-the-counter tests,” Davies said. “The data that you would see reported online would be … positive-clinically based tests.”

There was a spike in cases around the start of the school year, as between the dates of Aug. 20 and Sept. 10, 100 or more weekly cases were lab-confirmed. The highest was 157 cases the week of Sept. 3.

Awais Vaid, the director of McKinley Health Center, said that there have been many of the take-home tests distributed from McKinley, but also confirmed that the positive results do not always get reported.

“If somebody tests positive, they have the option of uploading their test result,” Vaid said. “But it is an optional reporting mechanism, not required.”

Ever since then, reported cases have been on the decline, except for the week of Oct. 29, including Halloween weekend, during which many social events at the University of Illinois occur, where there were 94 cases.

It is unclear, Vaid said, how many cases there really were after an event like that.

“Most of the cases are not being reported,” Vaid said. “It’s very limited in what we can interpret from that.” 

Vaid also added that he thinks most people do test positive but do not make too big a deal of it.

“Since they’re not required to report — and they have mild symptoms — they stay at home for a couple of days, and they get better, and then they get back to their routine,” Vaid said.

Davies pointed to a relatively new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) database that keeps people up to date on seasonal illnesses.

“It’ll give you national trends, state trends, and then it’ll even give you county-level trends,” Davies said in November. “It’s saying that … we’re at a medium COVID-19 hospitalization level in Champaign County.” As of Dec. 15, the county is at a low COVID-19 hospitalization level.

Wastewater an indicator for the virus after testing shutdown

With the University no longer requiring testing for any students as of Feb. 2023, the number of cases cannot be fully accurate. Vaid said the University’s decision to stop testing ended the operations of Illinois SHIELD, which was founded at the university. 

“Once the requirement for testing ended, they waited a few more months, where the SHIELD Illinois team — which had funding from the state and the feds — wrapped up their operations,” Vaid said.

While results are not always reported now, a current way the CDC has been keeping track of COVID-19 is with wastewater. The CDC’s Wastewater Surveillance tool states that wastewater can provide early warnings of potential spread in communities. 

“It reports on SARS-CoV-2 levels, influenza and [Respiratory Syncytial Virus] levels in the wastewater,” Davies said.

Vaid said wastewater is a good way of tracking the virus in the local community while also keeping track of hospitalizations.

“It tells us if the hospital system is getting stressed, in terms of numbers of patients,” he said. “It tells us complications because of hospitalizations, and it also tells us … what strain is circulating. Having said that, the wastewater surveillance testing is pretty good.”

The wastewater surveillance data shows Champaign County contains two sewer sheds, numbered 655 and 2306, with both showing spikes of COVID-19 in samples around Sept. 7, which goes back to the confirmed cases spike around that time.

Sewer shed 655 has been sampling for longer than 2306, as 655 began in Feb. 2022 and 2306 started to collect in June 2023.

The map reports one shed showing 60% to 79% of samples that include the virus, and the other 20% to 39% as of Dec. 11. The CDC describes these percentages as 0%, meaning no trace of the virus in the wastewater.

Davies confirmed that both sites have been seeing decreasing levels of COVID-19. He also said that these sites shouldn’t be viewed alone for reliable data.

“Public health experts warn that wastewater data alone should not be interpreted in isolation,” Davies said. “But rather considered alongside other public health metrics.”

Full vaccinations completed by 68% of county population

Champaign County’s total population is estimated to be 209,983 according to census statistics as of 2019, the number reported on the health district’s COVID dashboard. 

According to the health district, 159,438 people in the county have gotten at least the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, about 76%. About 16,000 fewer people, about 68%, completed a primary series of vaccines. A primary series indicates if a person has received the necessary number of doses, which varies depending on the vaccine.

When it comes to bivalent boosters, 46,668 people have received one, about 22% of the county’s population.

The CDC reports that 21.1% of the Illinois population is up to date with vaccinations.

At the University of Illinois, as of the spring 2023 semester, an older database showed that 94% of the overall population, including students, faculty and staff, have received full vaccinations. 

“COVID vaccinations are no longer a required vaccination for either faculty, staff or students,” Vaid said. “If a student has taken the vaccine, they can report it to McKinley, and we will have that in their student record.”

Vaid also said that McKinley is not administering the newer booster vaccine. The reason for that, Vaid said, is because it used to be provided to McKinley for no cost, but that is no longer the case. 

“McKinley is not currently offering the COVID vaccine since the newer vaccine came out a couple months back,” Vaid said. “Since we do not bill for insurance, we are referring anybody that wants a vaccine to the local pharmacy and local providers.”

McKinley’s website also provides information on where to receive vaccinations in the area.

The county health district’s vaccination data also shows that 54.8% of people who are not fully vaccinated test positive for COVID-19, as opposed to 45.2% of people who test positive while being fully vaccinated.

A map of the county shows the percentage of people who have at least received the first dose of a vaccine. As of Dec. 11, the zip code of 61822 shows 92.9% of its eligible population got at least one dose and 61802 shows 83.2%. The zip code with the lowest percentage is 61862 at 48.5%.

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