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As COVID-19 cases jump in Illinois, residents neglect public health guidelines

Increased indoor activities and COVID fatigue likely behind second wave

EVANSTON, Ill. --- As COVID-19 cases in Illinois surge past spring’s high point, a new survey examining people’s behaviors in the state shows colder weather driving people indoors and COVID fatigue are likely behind the virus’s deadly second wave.

The number of COVID-19 cases in Illinois has increased sharply over the last two months from about 2,000 cases per day in late September to a seven-day rolling average of roughly 12,000 daily cases since mid-November.

“The numbers are not promising in terms of what to expect in the coming months,” said Northwestern University political scientist James Druckman.“It seems that necessary behaviors are slipping, and this could put extreme strain on our health care infrastructure.”

Druckman is the Payson S. Wild Professor of political science in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern and associate director of the University’s Institute for Policy Research. He co-leads the ongoing research into the impact of COVID-19 conducted by a university consortium among Northwestern, Harvard, Northeastern and Rutgers, which surveyed Illinoisans between April and November 2020. Northwestern Ph.D. student Jennifer Lin also worked on the survey. 

When asked which activities respondents had engaged in over the past 24 hours, the researchers found a “substantial jump” in people engaging in indoor activities outside of the home, including 40% of people saying they went into their workplace, up from 25% in April.

Forty-two percent of respondents also indicated they are spending more time indoors with others. “This is a twofold increase from the number of respondents who said they were spending more time socializing indoors in the spring,” Druckman said.

While some indoor activities — such as going to church, gyms, restaurants and using public transportation — slightly dropped by 3% or less between mid-October and mid-November, Druckman and his co-authors indicated the overall trend of people spending more time in closed indoor spaces with others continued to rise.

Even though 78% of Illinoisans report wearing masks, up from 52% in April, they report declines in trying to stay apart from others when indoors:

  • Avoiding contact with others slipped from 66% to 49%
  • Avoiding public or crowded places dropped from 75% to 62%

These figures indicate more people in the state are neglecting critical health recommendations to maintain social distancing and stay away from indoor activities outside of their homes. The disease is more likely to spread through person-to-person aerosol transmission in closed indoor spaces.

Despite recent moves by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot to impose additional restrictions on gatherings and indoor activities, and pleas to stay at home for the holiday, a large number of Illinoisans traveled over Thanksgiving this year.

On the heels of the Thanksgiving holiday and with another holiday on the horizon, many public health experts expect the number of COVID-19 cases to rise sharply in the coming weeks. In a briefing on Nov. 25, Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, said signs of a possible surge in Illinois could be seen within the next two weeks.

On Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a TV interview that he worries that the U.S. may experience a “surge upon a surge.”

To avoid overwhelming hospitals in the coming months and to reduce deaths from COVID-19, the researchers encourage all Americans to increase social distancing measures and adhere more strictly to public health recommendations, especially in limiting indoor contact with others outside of their homes.

Read the complete survey report. Previous surveys can be found here.