Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi O. Ezike. | Photo: Colin Boyle/My Block, My Hood, My City.

Illinois health officials said that they are taking “aggressive action” as COVID-19 cases increase in the state, and several counties seeing low vaccine demand are now authorized to vaccinate residents 16 and older.

The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) said on Friday they are concerned about a trend in COVID-19 hospitalizations and case rates.

In response, they are launching Rapid Response Vaccination Teams to five counties — Carroll, Ogle, Boone, Lee and Whiteside —  and expanding vaccine eligibility where demand appears to have waned.

IDPH said they have seen vaccine demand slow in several counties throughout the state with early signs of unfilled appointments and increased vaccine inventory.

The state is authorizing those communities to begin vaccinating all residents 16 and older at their immediate discretion in order to use the vaccine doses they currently have available.

Officials did not state which counties were seeing a low demand for the vaccine.

“Recent increases in hospital admissions and test positivity are concerning new developments and we don’t want to go down the same path we’ve seen before and experience a resurgence in the pandemic, which is why Governor Pritzker directed us to use all our resources to halt these upticks,” IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said.

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“We cannot move forward if our metrics are going backward. The vaccine will help get us to the end of the pandemic, but we need to continue to reduce spread of the virus by wearing a mask, avoiding large crowds, keeping six feet of distance, getting tested after seeing others, and getting vaccinated as soon as possible,” Ezike said.

The federal government is projecting that Illinois will receive nearly 1 million doses next week for distribution — an all-time high.

“The number one goal for the state is to get as many people vaccinated, as quickly and safely as possible in order to stay ahead of variants,” Ezike said.

“This shift is similar to what we saw when expanding vaccine eligibility from Phase 1B to Phase 1B+ where some parts of the state were ready to move forward, while others were not. Each county is different and local health departments know better how to vaccinate people in their communities as soon as and as equitably as possible,” she said.

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More doses than normal will be allocated to counties that are experiencing high demand where at-risk residents face long waits for appointments.

Mobile rapid response vaccination teams will deploy over the next two weeks in five counties in Region 1 where IDPH epidemiologists have determined there is a need to administer doses quickly to blunt increasing trends.

The teams will be in Carroll County on March 31, Ogle County on April 1, Boone County on April 2, Lee County on April 3, and Whiteside County on April 5. Appointments will be coordinated by the local health department.

Illinois has seen 10 days of increases in the seven-day rolling average for hospital admissions since March 8.

The COVID-19 test positivity on March 10 was 2.5%, while today’s reported test positivity is 3.3%. “While these rates are certainly significantly lower than the peak, they represent a potential early warning sign about a possible resurgence,” IDPH said.

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To advance into the Bridge Phase, which is the final step before a full reopening, the entire state must achieve several metrics: 70% of residents 65 years and older must have received a first dose of vaccine, hospitals must maintain 20% or greater ICU bed availability, and hospitalizations for COVID-like illness and deaths must hold steady or decline over a 28-day monitoring period.

While Illinois is on pace to reach 70% first doses for residents 65 years and older in the coming days, IDPH said they are monitoring an increase in new hospital admissions for COVID, which “will need to be appropriately addressed and resolved” before moving into the Bridge Phase.