The current record-breaking spike of COVID-19 cases in Illinois and the Chicago area, in particular, is being followed by a boom in deaths. COVID-19 deaths have risen dramatically since last month’s arrival of the omicron variant resulted in the pandemic’s highest level of infections — just as they did after an initial surge of cases in the first few months of the pandemic and a subsequent wave last winter. And once again, COVID-19 is claiming the lives of Black Chicagoans at staggering and disproportionate rates.
Disparate death toll on Black Chicago
In the earliest weeks of the pandemic, Chicago’s Black residents were dying of COVID-19 at alarming rates. More recently, in the few weeks since the arrival of the omicron variant, Black Chicagoans are again dying at much higher rates than their Asian, Latino and white counterparts, shows a WBEZ analysis of data on COVID-19 related deaths from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office.
Since Dec. 7, 2021, the date when the state’s first omicron case was found in Chicago, the city’s Black residents are dying at rates four times higher than Asians, three times higher than Latinos and nearly two times higher than white residents, according to WBEZ’s analysis. A total of 97 Black Chicagoans died of COVID-19 during the seven-day period ending Jan. 9, 2022 — more than at any point since May 11, 2020.
Older – and vulnerable
Black Chicagoans aren’t the only demographic that has been particularly vulnerable since the arrival of omicron. Older suburban Cook County residents have also seen their seven-day COVID-19 death totals reach levels not witnessed in more than a year. According to WBEZ’s analysis, a total of 181 suburban Cook County residents 60 years and older died from COVID-19 during the week ending Jan. 9, 2022. That’s the highest seven-day total for that group since Dec. 24, 2020.
Throughout the pandemic in suburban Cook County, older white residents have died at far higher rates than any other group. White residents who are 60 years and older account for just 6.4% of the total population in suburban Cook County, but they make up 53.7% of all COVID-19 deaths among Cook County residents outside Chicago during the pandemic, according to WBEZ’s analysis.
Cook County’s hot spots
While several communities on Chicago’s South and West sides have been hit hard by COVID-19, the pandemic’s death toll has also weighed heavily in various parts of suburban Cook County. WBEZ’s analysis finds some of the county’s highest COVID-19 death rates in parts of northwest suburban Niles, Norridge and Lincolnwood, southwest suburban Palos Heights, Chicago Ridge, Oak Lawn and Bridgeview; and south suburban Hazel Crest, Markham, Harvey, Robbins and Country Club Hills.
Vaccination effectively fighting omicron
While local, state and federal officials have conceded that individuals deemed fully vaccinated might still get infected by the highly contagious omicron variant, they’ve implored individuals to get vaccinated to protect themselves from the most severe consequences of COVID-19. A WBEZ analysis of Illinois Department of Public Health data on “breakthrough” COVID-19 deaths bears that out.
Breakthrough deaths are instances where individuals who are fully vaccinated die from COVID-19 or complications due to the coronavirus. As of Jan. 12, 2022, IDPH reported 1,844 breakthrough deaths out of more than 7.8 million Illinois residents who’ve been vaccinated — a miniscule 0.024%. That leaves nearly 27,000 COVID-19 deaths among roughly 5 million Illinois residents who have not been fully vaccinated or 0.537% — a figure more than 22 times higher than the one for vaccinated residents.
The medical examiner data suggests that rising vaccinations can help reduce the death toll of COVID-19. WBEZ’s analysis shows that a surge in vaccinations among Chicago’s Black residents shortly after COVID-19 vaccines were introduced in late December 2020 coincided with a sharp decline in deaths among Black Chicagoans. More recently, right around the time when omicron arrived, vaccinations among the city’s Black residents began to fall just as the group’s COVID-19 deaths rose dramatically.
Among Chicago’s four largest racial and ethnic groups, Black Chicagoans remain the least vaccinated. Roughly half the city’s Black population is unvaccinated.
Alden Loury is senior editor of WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities Desk. Follow him @AldenLoury. Charmaine Runes is WBEZ’s data/visuals reporter. Follow her @maerunes.