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Suburbs didn’t want to be linked with Chicago over coronavirus restrictions. Now many areas are showing positivity rates higher than the city.

A patient is tested by phlebotomist Cynthia Robinson at a mobile COVID-19 testing site on July 12, 2020, at Lake Zurich High School.
A patient is tested by phlebotomist Cynthia Robinson at a mobile COVID-19 testing site on July 12, 2020, at Lake Zurich High School. (Karie Angell Luc / Pioneer Press / Chicago Tribune)

Some suburban and rural leaders got their wish when their counties were separated from Chicago’s for purposes of monitoring the coronavirus. But now officials warn that many collar counties are seeing higher rates of positive tests than the city, which could prompt tighter restrictions.

In a region where nursing homes once accounted for the majority of cases, health officials say now large gatherings of young people without proper precautions are sparking outbreaks. Positivity rates have been rising in the counties surrounding Chicago, prompting Gov. J.B. Pritzker to ask local officials to start tightening the leash on COVID-19 restrictions.

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The latest warnings show an evolution in the spread of the pandemic, which has been a factor in the deaths of more than 7,500 people in the state.

When Illinois was divided into only four regions, the Northeast Region included Cook, Lake, McHenry, DuPage, Kane, Kendall, Grundy, Will and Kankakee counties, all under the governor’s stay-at-home order. That grouping prompted some backlash from officials who noted that the number of cases was much lower in the suburbs.

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Officials from DuPage County called for freedom from those restrictions, saying they shouldn’t be lumped together with the high caseload in Chicago. Sheriffs from Kane and Kendall counties declared that they wouldn’t enforce the governor’s orders.

Now, the state is divided into 11 regions, and the counties that previously made up the Northeast Region are spread out among six new regions. DuPage and Kane counties, for example, make up one region. Future restrictions depend on the extent of the virus in each area. But after falling this summer, the rate of people testing positive for the virus has been increasing across the suburbs in recent days.

While Chicago had a positivity rate of 4.5% as of July 25, Lake County’s rate stood at 5%, suburban Cook and McHenry each were at 5.4%, DuPage 4%, Kane 5.8%, Will 5.9% and Kendall ― the highest in the area ― was at 6.8%.

If a region has three consecutive days with a positivity rate at 8% or higher, or has other triggering measures, the state may crack down with more restrictions on gatherings and businesses.

One reason for the rise in cases, officials said, has been the outbreak of the disease among young people. In one case, the virus was detected at a sports camp at Lake Zurich High School, where at least 36 students tested positive for the virus following the Fourth of July weekend. But since then, following further contact with those infected, the outbreak has more than doubled to 73 cases as of Thursday.

Similarly, a prom gathering in Indiana of about 250 students from Will County’s Lincoln Way East High School, many who were without masks or were not social distancing, has prompted concern among health officials. The number of cases in the Frankfort area, where the school is located, rose by 28 in the past eight days through Thursday, to 264.

In both cases, county health officials are trying to track down all the people who had close contact with those who test positive, to warn them to quarantine for 14 days. The incidents emphasize the need to wear masks, stay at least 6 feet from other people, limit crowds to 50 people and wash hands, Lake County Department of Health epidemiologist Dr. Sana Ahmed said.

“Taking the appropriate precautions, we can reduce the spread of this virus,” she said. “We’re in this together.”

To mitigate the spread, county officials are ramping up contact tracing. Lake County had about 70 tracers contacting people by phone or text, or trying to reach people on social media, with a federal grant to hire some 120 people over the coming months. So far they’ve been able to reach about 75% of those who tested positive in the past month. They then tried to reach people who were in contact with those who tested positive and urge them to quarantine.

The problem of rising rates runs statewide. On Friday, the Illinois Department of Public Health placed 11 counties at a warning level for the virus: Cass, Gallatin, Jackson, Jo Daviess, Johnson, Perry, Randolph, Saline, Sangamon, St. Clair and White. A county enters a warning level after an increase in two or more risk indicators.

Pritzker had previously warned of rising cases in the Metro East area near St. Louis. Officials blamed large social gatherings, often with people not wearing masks, including on a party bus and at a winery, at restaurants and churches, sports tournaments, as well as travel out of state.

If masking and social distancing aren’t enough, state officials warned, local officials may need to impose tighter restrictions, such as further limiting capacity at places people gather such as bars, restaurants and gyms.

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While Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has issued quarantine orders for people traveling from states with high incidences of the coronavirus, some suburban officials so far have urged similar measures, but made them voluntary.

DuPage County Health Department Executive Director Karen Ayala recently warned that the number of daily cases there nearly doubled in the four weeks leading up to mid-July. Much of that increase was attributable to those in the age group 10 to 29, which grew to 43% of all cases by July 19.

“We are all COVID-fatigued, I get it,” she said. “However, COVID is not fatigued with us, and still is spreading in our communities."

One bright spot has been the reduction in cases at nursing homes. Long-term care facilities still account for more than 4,000 deaths involving COVID-19, more than half the state total, but many facilities have stopped or reversed the outbreak.

Symphony of Joliet, for instance, which had 130 cases and 25 deaths, last week reported no new cases in the past 90 days. More than 1,200 patients were reported to have recovered across the Symphony Care Network of 29 homes.

A drastic shortage of testing initially allowed residents and workers who were infected to spread the disease unknowingly. But Dr. Alexander Stemer, who co-chairs Symphony of Joliet’s COVID task force, attributed the improvement to comprehensive testing.

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