The coronavirus pandemic has left 338 people dead on the mid-South Side a little over a year since it began in Chicago. The ongoing pandemic is the second-worst mass casualty event in the city’s history, trailing only the 1918 influenza pandemic.
South Side Weekly has pulled data from the Cook County Medical Examiner to determine casualties from COVID-19, finding 42 deaths in Douglas, five deaths in Oakland, 30 deaths in Grand Boulevard, 23 deaths in Kenwood, 15 deaths in Washington Park, eight deaths in Hyde Park, 22 deaths in Woodlawn, 54 deaths in Greater Grand Crossing and 139 deaths in South Shore.
The Chicago Department of Public Health reports 151 deaths in South Shore's ZIP code, 60649, meaning that one in every 305 neighborhood residents has died from COVID-19. That’s the worst death toll in the city and nearly as bad as in New York City, where last spring's surge and the ongoing outbreak have left one in 276 residents dead.
The death toll in 60653 is one in 561; In 60615, it is one in 1,188; and in 60637, it is one in 863. Citywide, one in every 548 Chicagoans have died from COVID-19.
At least one-third of the deaths on the mid-South Side have occurred among residents at long-term care facilities, per data from the Illinois Department of Public Health.
The magnitude of deaths in South Shore far eclipses the deaths in ZIP codes and community areas surrounding it and cannot be explained simply by outbreaks at nursing homes alone. By ZIP code, its death rate is the worst per capita in the city.
"Certainly, that was a very bad early outbreak," said Dr. Alison Arwady, the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, in a late December interview. The city saw a very wide range of case fatality rates during COVID outbreaks across Chicago; at the early one at Symphony South Shore, 2425 E. 71st St., she calculated a 16% fatality rate, noting that other nursing homes had had much higher rates.
Chicago began testing for the coronavirus at nursing homes citywide, but Symphony South Shore, through its relationship with the University of Chicago, was able to test widely early in the pandemic and grasp the scale of the outbreak.
During the first wave, when there was the national shortage of coronavirus tests, there were more cases of COVID-19 diagnosed in South Shore than in the second wave.
"That means that there was comparatively a lot of testing happening in this ZIP code. Whether that's U. of C. and others helping with it, it's very, very unusual," Arwady said. "It got hit very hard with a fair bit of testing and diagnosing really early."
That more people tested positive for COVID-19 in South Shore's 60649 ZIP code in the first wave than in the second means "there were many, many, many more people infected with COVID than ever got tested that first time around."
ZIP code 60649 and 60653 had large spikes of deaths in the first wave; ZIP codes 60615 and 60637, covering Hyde Park-Kenwood as well as Washington Park and Woodlawn, had two distinct peaks of deaths, in the first and second waves.
But South Shore, more than North Kenwood and Bronzeville, "got hit really hard really early, that would be part of why this cumulative rate of death is high," Arwady said. "Certainly some of it is nursing homes, but not all of it. After that early spike, it's actually been good. The positivity, the cases, it's all been better." It could have been that the outbreaks at South Shore nursing homes happened because there was already a disproportionately high amount of coronavirus in the neighborhood.
Arwady said the South Shore area was where a lot of early community coronavirus spread occurred, amid families and between social networks, before people knew how it spread. Before the coronavirus became widespread, it spread in houses and gatherings; at first, epidemiologists did not know it spread asymptomatically.
"Unfortunately, social cohesion in some ways, especially early on in an outbreak, can be a negative in terms of COVID spread," she said. "We were so disproportionately seeing COVID spread in African Americans, and some of that has balanced out as we've gone on, but still cumulatively we've had disproportionately more African Americans die than Latinx."
"But I think here, COVID getting into the community, not just the nursing homes but into the social networks very early is unfortunately before you've learned about the community mitigation stuff," she said. Chicago's first case of community-acquired COVID-19 happened in the vicinity of South Shore; the city found the patient when health care professionals began randomly testing people at hospitals.
Despite the mass casualties, Chicago, unlike New York, never saw its health care system overwhelmed.
"They had such a surge in cases that their hospitals were not able to take care of patients," Arwady said. "There were people dying before they could get to a hospital. There were people unable to get on ventilators at hospitals. We had seen that happen to an extent in Italy, and I think we did move a little faster here."