In another promising sign Illinois is beating back the COVID-19 pandemic, cases and deaths at Illinois long-term care facilities have dropped to levels not seen since late summer, according to state data released Friday.
Following weeks of focused vaccination of long-term care residents and workers, the state reported 33 residents died from the virus over the past week. That’s the lowest reported tally since mid-August and exponentially lower than the 650 weekly deaths reported in early December.
Long-term care residents not only have seen a sizable drop in the number of deaths, they also now make up a far smaller share of those who are dying of COVID-19 each week — going from roughly half or more of these deaths in Illinois to near 10% now.
Long-term care residents were among the first groups prioritized for vaccination, and advocates for seniors and industry officials credit the vaccines for reducing the virus’s toll in long-term care facilities. But both groups cautioned that the pandemic remains far from over.
“We still need to remember we’re in a crisis, even though we’re seeing positive trends,” said Ryan Gruenenfelder, a director of advocacy and outreach for AARP Illinois.
Matt Pickering, executive director of the industry group Health Care Council of Illinois, said in a statement that the figures show “we are finally turning the tide in nursing homes.”
“Two months of steady declines in the number of new coronavirus cases and deaths among our residents is proof positive that the vaccine works,” he said. “We will not let our guard down quite yet, however.”
The hopeful trends come as the state approaches a sobering milestone. In the past week, the state recorded its 9,689th death of a long-term care resident, leaving the state just a few hundred shy of 10,000 deaths among nearly 75,000 cases.
Health officials warned as the pandemic was getting underway that long-term care residents were among the most vulnerable, and the virus, as predicted, tore through Illinois facilities in ways that exposed oversight failures. Facilities were put on near-lockdowns, with families largely unable to visit, as residents endured a deadly spring surge and even deadlier one in the fall.
The state as a whole started to see a downturn in confirmed infections in November, but cases in the state’s long-term care facilities didn’t crest until a month later, state data shows.
Vaccinations began shortly after that mid-December peak, when federal and state guidelines prioritized long-term care residents, along with health workers, for the first round of shots.
The federal government enlisted pharmacies to travel to long-term care facilities to vaccinate residents and staff. There were notable delays in that program, which contributed to broader frustrations with Illinois’ vaccination rollout, but the governor has said he expected all facilities to have been visited at least once by Monday.
The state health department and governor’s office did not respond to questions about whether that goal was met. State data shows that, as of Friday, more than 270,000 doses had been administered to long-term care residents and staff. It’s unclear how many were first doses or second doses.
The state reports that the long-term care vaccination program has more than 170,000 doses left to administer. But the state has previously said the program may not need all of those shots to complete vaccinations of willing residents and workers at long-term care facilities.
It’s also unclear how many residents and staff each facility has vaccinated. The state is three weeks beyond the legal deadline to respond to a Tribune public records request for such data, and the state hasn’t answered repeated questions about its delay in responding.
The state also did not immediately respond to questions about the latest trends in long-term care data.
Gruenenfelder, with AARP Illinois, said challenges remain in the state’s broader vaccination program, including whether shots are being distributed swiftly and fairly to older state residents, particularly Black and Hispanic people living in communities hardest hit by the pandemic.