Chicago likely to soon return to high COVID levels

Chicago’s top doctor warns she expects the city to soon have high levels of COVID-19, and Chicago will once again encourage people to wear masks indoors if that happens.

Chicago and Cook, DuPage, Lake, McHenry, Will and Kane counties remain at moderate levels of community COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But recently, New York City and Los Angeles have moved to high levels of the disease, and Chicago is likely to follow soon, said Dr. Chicago Department of Health Commissioner Allison Arwady at a news conference Thursday.

“My expectation is that as we continue to gather for the holidays and head into the respiratory virus season, we’ll likely see high levels as well,” Arwady said. “If Chicago reaches high levels of COVID, we will make a formal recommendation to Chicagoans to wear their masks indoors.”

According to the city’s health department, the recommendation would encourage, but not require, masking indoors.

At Chicago’s current median level, the CDC recommends that people at high risk of serious illness dress in public indoors and that those who come into contact with people at high risk consider wearing masks around them. At high community levels, the CDC recommends widespread masking.

Arwady said people wouldn’t have to wait for a recommendation from the city to resume masking indoors, especially given that the flu and other respiratory viruses are also circulating.

“Wearing a mask indoors helps protect you,” she said. “It helps protect everyone around you.” She urged people with a cough or cold to wear masks indoors to protect others.

Chicago is now seeing an average of about 600 new cases of COVID-19 each day, and that only counts people diagnosed in formal settings, not people who get positive results using tests at home. That’s up from an average of 425 new cases per day about a month ago, according to the city’s health department.

COVID-19 hospitalizations have also risen in Chicago, with an average of 44 new hospitalizations per day, up from an average of 33 per day about a month ago. The number is still nowhere near the number of hospital admissions during the last big spike in January, when the city was at one point averaging more than 200 new hospital admissions per day.

Arwady and doctors at Lurie Children’s Hospital Thursday urged people to get new, bivalent COVID-19 booster shots, including young children. Last week, the CDC approved bivalent booster shots for children as young as 6 months, and shots for toddlers are now available at Illinois pharmacies.

“Our bodies must continue to be protected against these new variants,” said Dr. Larry Kociolek, Medical Director of Infections, Prevention and Control at Lurie. “Vaccines will prevent many infections. They will allow us to do the things we love to do, especially at this time of year, gathering with family and friends.”

The bivalent booster vaccines aim to protect against both the original COVID-19 strain and Omicron variants. However, uptake has been somewhat slow so far, particularly among younger age groups.

As of December 7, about 17% of all Chicagoans age 5 and older had received the new booster shot. Among Chicago residents who were eligible to receive the booster shot, 24% had received it. To get the booster shot, people must first complete their primary COVID-19 vaccine series and have had their last shot at least two months ago.

Arwady said she is keeping an eye on Chicago hospital capacity as COVID-19 cases rise and the flu spreads. Many are predicting this flu season will be one of the worst in years, with flu activity in Chicago already well above flu activity at the same time in 2019.

“We’ve seen more people getting sick and hospitalized with the flu at this point in the year than in many years,” Arwady said.

According to the Chicago Department of Public Health, as of December 14, about 84% of the city’s ICU beds were occupied and about 86% of non-ICU acute care beds were occupied.

“We are monitoring hospital capacity very closely,” Arwady said. “That’s what worries me the most as we look ahead.”

In recent months, children’s hospitals in Chicago and across the country have been overwhelmed by early surges in RSV and other respiratory viruses. Chicago’s RSV numbers are falling, however, which takes some of the pressure off children’s hospitals — although they remain busy.

dr Matthew Davis, chairman of Lurie’s department of pediatrics, said Thursday that Lurie was about 90% full, up from 99% and 100% a few weeks ago, a situation that has forced the hospital to turn down some requests from other hospitals, to transfer patients there.

“What we can all do together is prevent disease through vaccination against COVID and against influenza,” Davis said.

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