CHICAGO (CBS) — Illinois continued to see improving trends in key COVID-19 metrics on Thursday, as the statewide infection rate reached its lowest point in nearly two months, and hospitalizations also declined.

The Illinois Department of Public Health reported 7,037 new confirmed and probable coronavirus cases on Thursday, as well as 96 additional deaths.

While Thursday’s case count is up slightly from Wednesday, testing also ticked up over the past 24 hours, dropping the statewide seven-day average case positivity rate for Illinois to 7.2%, the lowest it’s been since Oct. 29. The state’s positivity rate has been trending downward for more than a month, after reaching as high as 13.2% on Nov. 13. However it’s still more than double the 3.5% positivity rate reported at the start of October.

Since the start of the pandemic, Illinois has reported a total of 925,107 cases of COVID-19, including 15,643 deaths.

While COVID-19 deaths remain much higher than they were during the summer, they are down significantly from the peak of the fall surge. Illinois is averaging 116 deaths per day over the past week, compared to 152 per day nearly three weeks ago.

As of Wednesday night, 4,488 coronavirus patients were hospitalized in Illinois, including 944 patients in the ICU and 518 on ventilators. The state’s overall COVID-19 hospitalizations had been trending up for three days in a row before dropping slightly over the past 24 hours. Overall, hospitalizations have been trending down for more than a month after peaking at 6,175 on Nov. 20, though there are still far more COVID-19 patients in the hospital in mid-December than at the start of the fall surge in early October.

Illinois is averaging 4,545 coronavirus hospitalizations per day over the last week, more than triple the average of about 1,500 per day at the start of October. During the first wave of the pandemic, the state peaked at an average of 4,822 hospitalizations per day in early May.

On Wednesday, Gov. JB Pritzker said the slight increase in hospitalizations in the past few days was concerning, and part of the reason he is waiting at least until after the holidays to consider lifting current COVID-19 regulations across Illinois, even though some regions of the state already meet the requirements to move from Tier 3 to Tier 2 restrictions.

“Even if we brought the entire state or specific regions from Tier 3 to Tier 2, that would not open bars and restaurants for indoor service yet. We need to bring it down even further, and for a longer period of time,” Pritzker said. “We’ll get there, I believe, shortly, and we want to see how the Christmas and New Year’s holidays go.”

The governor also noted that too many COVID-19 patients are still taking up ICU beds, with approximately 20.5% of ICU beds currently available statewide. The state’s threshold for lifting current virus restrictions includes maintaining at least 20% ICU bed capacity for 10 days in a row, and Pritzker said he’s concerned the holidays could bring another surge of cases in the coming weeks, and send hospitalizations up again.

“The challenge that we have is that we don’t want to swing back and forth between mitigations and not having mitigations within days or a week or two of another,” Pritzker said.

Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike again urged Illinois residents to avoid spreading the virus over the holidays by avoiding travel or gathering with people outside their own household.

“The best way to avoid another surge in hospitalizations, another surge in deaths, another surge in new infections is to celebrate the holidays at home with the family that you currently live with,” she said.

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CBS 2 Chicago Staff