The federal Public Health Emergency declaration for COVID-19 officially ended Thursday, May 11, a little more than three years after shutdowns were ordered in March 2020. Ending the emergency declaration will end some major programs, such as access to free tests.

The number 84 outside the Morton Civic Center represents the number of Evanstonians who had died due to COVID-19 as of Nov. 24, 2020. It says, “In their memory, let’s do our best to keep each other safe and well. Wear a mask; socially distance; wash your hands.” Credit: Wendi Kromash

The federal Department of Health and Human Services said in a prepared statement, “Due to the Biden-Harris Administration’s whole-of-government approach to combating COVID-19, we are now in a better place in our response than at any point of the pandemic and well-positioned to transition out of the emergency phase and end the COVID-19 PHE [Public Health Emergency].”

On May 11 the Illinois Department of Public Health reported for the first time that every county in the state was in the low risk category for the transmission of COVID. The risk rating takes into account the number of new COVID cases per 100,000, the number of hospitalizations per 100,000 and the percentage of hospital beds being used by COVID patients.

For Cook County the number of hospitalizations per 100,000 people was 3.1 and the percentage of hospital beds being used by COVID patients was 1.5%.

Advances make COVID less deadly

The number of hospitalizations and deaths has declined significantly for a number of reasons.

Many people have been vaccinated and many have built up immunity by having contracted and recovered from COVID. As a result, people are less likely to contract COVID, and if they do, their infections are less serious.

The drug Paxlovid, if taken within five days of contracting the virus, can reduce the chances of developing severe COVID and the need for hospitalization. When there are hospitalizations due to COVID, doctors and nurses have learned more effective ways to treat patients, including the need for respirators, and reduce the length of hospital stays.

But people continue to contract COVID, and some have serious symptoms, including some deaths. The virus is still killing about 1,000 Americans every week, primarily older adults.

Pandemic shutdown

On March 9, 2020, Illinois Governor JB Pritzker declared a statewide emergency due to COVID and four days later, on March 13, District 65 schools and Evanston Township High School were closed for in-person learning. They shifted to remote learning for the balance of the 2020-21 school year and most of the 2021-22 school year.

Pritzker also entered orders prohibiting large gatherings and ordered restaurants and bars to close. He subsequently ordered all “nonessential” businesses to close, and entered a stay-at-home order that remained in effect for several months.

Pritzker and Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of IDPH, held daily press conferences for about a year, during which they reported on the status of the pandemic and laid out requirements for churches, entertainment venues, restaurants and bars, retail businesses, offices, child care centers, and schools. They also established restrictions for travel, requirements to maintain a safe distance from other people and to wear a mask.

As the number of COVID cases declined, the state periodically relaxed the restrictions.

Evanston’s COVID response

Early on, the City of Evanston formed a COVID task force under Mayor Stephen Hagerty’s leadership. The task force comprised leaders from the city, the school districts, hospitals and Northwestern University; business leaders; and leaders of nonprofit organizations and the faith community. The group coordinated efforts to address the pandemic.

NorthShore University Health System used Glenview Hospital as its center to treat COVID patients. Ascension St. Francis hospital treated COVID patients at its Ridge Avenue facility in Evanston.

When vaccines became available, the city coordinated efforts to provide locations where people could get vaccinations.

The pandemic changed virtually everyone’s life. Essential workers provided heroic service, at significant risk to themselves. The isolation and the inability to gather with friends and family were difficult. People could not attend church services, weddings or funerals. Many students suffered learning loss, and many have reported developing emotional issues. Many adults took on the dual role of working full-time remotely at home while overseeing their children’s remote learning at home. Many restaurants and retail stores went out of business. Many other businesses failed.

The city reported that as of May 11, there had been 19,398 COVID cases of Evanston residents – greatly understated because many cases are not reported – and 168 deaths.

RoundTable’s COVID coverage

The RoundTable first published an essay on COVID on Feb. 8, 2020, by Kurt Mitenbuler, an Evanston resident who was in China at the time. He reported firsthand how China was responding to the pandemic. He followed up that essay with four others.

On Feb. 28, 2020, RoundTable journalists Mary Gavin and Victoria Scott published an article Anticipating the Corona Virus: What Evanston is Doing. At that time, city and school leaders all thought the risk was low.

A mere two weeks later, the state shut down. Since then, the RoundTable has published more than 400 articles about the status of the COVID pandemic, the restrictions imposed to address it, how hospitals were responding and how schools were responding.

COVID is mentioned in 1,930 RoundTable articles since Feb. 27, 2020.  

Reduction in COVID data reporting

After May 11, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, IDPH and the City of Evanston will be reporting less data concerning COVID. Hospitals will no longer be required to report how many of their patients are hospitalized due to COVID. IDPH, though, will continue to report the number of people admitted to hospitals in Illinois through the emergency room, as well as weekly deaths due to COVID. IDPH will also report on the presence of COVID in wastewater across the state. IDPH has set up wastewater testing systems during the past year, and the wastewater may be a critical warning system for government officials and the public.

IDPH and the CDC will no longer report the community risk level for each county in the nation.

Going forward, however, CDC says it will report the rate of hospitalizations due to COVID for each county and that will be the primary surveillance method to guide a community about COVID risk.

For the last year, the RoundTable has published an article every Thursday reporting the number of new COVID cases and the community risk levels for Evanston and Cook County.

In light of the change in data reporting by IDPH and CDC, this article will be the last regular Thursday article published by the RoundTable providing statistics on new COVID cases and community risk levels.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...

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  1. The good news is, um, good so far as it goes. Roundtable has done well. But covid still kills 1,100+ Americans a week, rages in other parts of the jet-connected world, and is especially dangerous to elders and other highly vulnerable people. All, especially those of us who encounter them, have a responsibility to exercise care — even still wear a mask in transmission-prone settings.