Amid sweltering heat waves and the back-to-school season, several local hospitals are seeing a small uptick in Covid-19 cases this month.
The University of Chicago Medical Center, 5841 S. Maryland Ave., reports increasing positivity rates — the percentage of Covid-19 tests that come back positive — for the virus since the beginning of August, according to Emily Landon, the hospital’s executive medical director for infection prevention and control. In the last two weeks, she said, the hospital’s number of Covid-19 cases has doubled.
“We are definitely seeing an increase in cases in the community, we’re seeing an increase in the hospital, we’re seeing an increase in both low, mild to moderate cases in our health care workers and in our patients,” Landon said.
Dr. Jonathan Martin, an infectious disease physician with Cook County Health at Provident Hospital, 500 E. 51st St., said this increase is clear across the county’s public health system. A month ago, Cook County Health system recorded a positivity rate of 1.5% — last week, the rate reached 6.5%.
“This particular spike has increased rather quickly after this lull period that we had at the beginning of the summer,” said Martin.
Landon said that cases stayed stable and low throughout the summer, but began to increase at the end of July, a trend she attributes in part to hotter days.
“You end up battening down the hatches and not mixing in as much fresh air from outside when the outside air is intemperate, whether that’s too hot or too cold,” Landon said. “And any time we make air cooler, either outside or inside, it loses moisture, and that makes Covid-19 spread a little bit better.”
“We’ve been seeing more sustained transmission happen every summer in the southern half of the United States,” she said. “Every year that seems to happen around the time of maximal heat impact.”
Additionally, as vaccine boosters begin to wear off, immunity wanes. Only 23.7% of Chicagoans received the latest (bivalent) booster dose as of August 22, according to city data.
Because the Covid-19 public health emergency declaration expired on May 11, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention no longer collects and reports the number of new Covid-19 infections. Chicago’s Department of Public Health (CDPH) does still monitor the virus by collecting data on hospital admission levels, wastewater, respiratory virus surveillance and vaccination rates.
Weekly reports from the Chicago Department of Public Health show that the test positivity for Cook County has been increasing since the week of July 1. That week, the city saw a positivity rate of 2.5% — as of the week of August 6, the most recent available data, that rate was 7.6%.(Chicago’s positivity rate peaked at 19.6% during the omicron surge in January 2022.) Hospitalizations and emergency room visits are also up from the previous week, and wastewater is showing an increase in Covid-19 virals levels.
Landon noted that because hospitalizations have largely decreased since the first wave of vaccinations began in 2021, this isn’t a strong indicator for the state of the virus’ spread. “Many people are vaccinated and have some immunity, which is great, because then they’re not so much hospitalized for acute Covid-19,” she said.
Both Martin and Landon said that though cases are on the rise, the symptoms remain largely the same.
“We’re seeing the typical Covid-19 symptoms, so cough, fever, shortness of breath, sore throat,” Martin said. “In particular, people that are immunocompromised or have other health conditions, we’re seeing Covid-19 in the lungs, which can present as shortness of breath and lead to a diagnosis of pneumonia. We’re seeing a lot of exacerbations of people’s chronic medical conditions.”
The most common variant local hospitals are treating now is EG.5. New Covid-19 variants include EG.5, FL.1.5.1, BA2.86 and new XBB strains, all of which descended from strains that were dominant last winter.
A new vaccine is slated to arrive this fall to target these new variants.
Treatment and the new booster
If people do contract Covid-19 during this slight rise, Landon recommended PAXLOVID, an oral antiviral drug. Test right away, she said, repeating it twice 48 hours apart if a home test, or get a PCR test. If positive, individuals should consult a primary care physician about obtaining PAXLOVID.
“We're still seeing people admitted, needing hospitalization and needing inpatient treatments. Those people are typically unvaccinated or under-vaccinated, or it's been a long time since their last vaccination,” Martin said. But overall, he added, “we’re seeing Covid-19 now transition to a largely outpatient disease.”
As cases rise, Landon said, she’s gotten more questions from patients about booster shots.
If people are at higher risk or going to be traveling soon, she recommends getting a booster now followed by another one mid-winter. For others, she recommends waiting until the new booster comes out in mid-September.
Martin encouraged people to stay home if they feel sick, and if they are at risk for severe Covid-19, they should take a test and contact a primary care provider if they are positive.
“Speed matters now with these new outpatient medicines — the quicker we start them, the less severe the infection is, the quicker you improve, and the more likely it is we can keep you out of the hospital,” he said.