By Jordan McBride
Johnson County has once again reached an elevated warning level due to COVID-19 infection rates. The Illinois Department of Public Health announced on July 23 that Johnson County joins several other counties in the southern portion of the state that are classified as higher-risk areas. The designation of an “orange warning level”, factors in test positivity metrics, intensive-care unit bed availability, and other measurements. As of Friday, July 23, Southern Seven Health Department reported 29 active cases in Johnson County. With contacts that represents 128 potential cases. Just under 18% of ICU beds were reportedly available across the region.
COVID-19 cases have accelerated rapidly in recent weeks, with the decrease in restrictions meeting complications caused by the new Delta variant. The Delta strain of the virus, which according the Centers for Disease Control is making up more than 80% of new cases across the country, appears to be almost twice as contagious as the strains that have defined much of the last year. Still, vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are still effective against the new strain of the virus.
Johnson County’s vaccination rate, as of July 22, sat at 33.32%. That number does not seem poised to go up anytime soon, as there are not a significant number of residents who received one dose waiting for their second. Johnson County is not far behind other counties in the Southern Seven region, Massac, Union, and Pulaski County which all joined Johnson County in returning to “orange” warning status for COVID-19 on Friday, all boast vaccination rates between 22.94% – 38.41%. Alexander County has the lowest vaccination rate in the region with only 14.98%, the lowest in the state of Illinois.
Statewide rates are significantly higher, with 48% of adults fully vaccinated. Another 13% of Illinois residents are waiting on their second dose of the vaccine. At the current rate, the state of Illinois should see three-quarters of the population vaccinated before the end of the summer.
The low vaccination rates in the southernmost counties are not surprising. Last winter, S7HD conducted a poll asking who would be willing to receive the vaccine when it became available, and nearly 60% of individuals residing in the area said they were not at all interested. An early waiting list looked promising, with almost 7,000 individuals signing up for vaccine appointments in their home county. In a region of almost 70,000 residents, though, all of those early shots only cover a small portion of the population.
Vaccination rates have further dropped off precipitously since April, with the numbers increasing only very slightly since then. At the same time that those rates slowed down, positivity rates for active COVID-19 cases have shot back up across the area.
“The number of people contracting COVID-19 is still on the rise and now we are beginning to see the impacts in our area hospitals,” says Nathan Ryder, Outreach Coordinator for Southern Seven’s Contact Tracing Team. “More people are getting sick with COVID and requiring hospitalization throughout the Southern Seven region, but it doesn’t have to be this way.”
Ryder’s statement hints at something local health departments, along with the IDPH and the CDC have been stressing for months: COVID-19 vaccinations all but prevent hospitalization and death due to the coronavirus. The Associated Press reported that, in June, only 98.9% of hospitalizations and 99.2% of deaths in the United States due to COVID-19 were cases that occurred in unvaccinated individuals, often called “breakthrough” infections. While some individuals do still contract the virus after vaccination, especially immunocompromised individuals who are several months out from vaccination, the vast majority of those cases are of a milder variety.
While S7HD recommends continuing to follow mitigation measures such as frequent had washing, social distancing, and mask-wearing, many of those practices have long since fallen by the wayside across the region. Few establishments outside of the healthcare industry require masks or social distancing, and the general consensus across the region seems to be that life is “back to normal” as much as it can be.
Governor Pritzker has indicated that even though these metrics would have triggered mitigations last year, there are no plans to institute any such measures now that vaccines are widely available. There is little regional interest in doing so in Johnson County, so nothing seems poised to shut back down any time soon. IDPH announced earlier this month that vaccinated individuals attending public schools this fall will not need to wear a mask, and most local school districts are leaving the decision up to the parents.
Update: The printed version of this article contained a mistake in the percentages of hospitalizations and deaths in unvaccinated individuals. This story has been updated with the correct information.