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Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot COVID-19 curve graphic

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot attends a news conference on March 20, 2020. New data suggest that social distancing measures have helped flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases in the city.

Charles Rex Arbogast

Chicago Has ‘Flattened The Curve’ Of COVID-19 Cases, Mayor Lori Lightfoot Says

Chicagoans are indeed helping to flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases in the city, according to new public health data from Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration.

In the beginning of March, when the new coronavirus started to emerge in the city, cases were starting to double every two days, the data show. If that pace kept up with no interventions, city officials estimate Chicago could have had 1.5 million cases and nearly 50,000 deaths around now.

Instead, there’s been a sea change in Chicagoans’ lives: City Hall shuttered the city’s famous Lakefront and pleaded with residents to practice social distancing, while Gov. JB Pritzker largely closed down restaurants, bars and schools and enacted a statewide stay-at-home order.

The result: There have been 9,666 cases and 347 deaths in Chicago. Cases are now doubling every 12 days instead of every two.

“We flattened that curve just over this last month,” Dr. Allison Arwady, who leads the Chicago Department of Public Health, told reporters during a briefing on Tuesday.

Still, Arwady tempered that good news by reiterating that Chicago still has a ways to go before it’s past the worst of the pandemic.

“We’re going to need to get to a point where we not only see it flatten entirely, meaning that they’re not doubling at all, but then we see the number of new cases actually declining,” she said.

Officials have worried for weeks that a sudden spike in COVID-19 cases would break the back of the hospital system across Illinois. That’s why flattening the curve, and pushing the peak number of cases out over a longer period of time, is key to making sure hospitals aren’t overwhelmed with patients, Arwady said.

There are signs of optimism in the newly released data, much like in case trends for the rest of Illinois. But that doesn’t mean Chicagoans should start to slack on staying apart and staying home, Lightfoot urged.

“Think about a world in which you go back to work,” Lightfoot told reporters on a Tuesday conference call. “When are you going to feel comfortable? When we have widespread testing. When we have some system in place where employers and individuals can be certain not just about themselves, but also about their colleagues. And think about large public events.”

Arwady said the city is closely following four key areas that will determine when life can begin returning to normal. The city wants to see a sustained drop in new cases; to make sure hospitals can continue to safely treat all patients who need to be hospitalized without rationing ventilators or turning people away; to ensure the city can test everyone who has symptoms and do more widespread testing (that’s not happening now); and to be able to more closely contain the virus by being able to monitor more confirmed cases.

In other words, it could be a while, Chicagoans, before life returns to normal.

Here are some other interesting nuggets that emerged from the data:

  • Hospitals have room in their intensive care units: Almost a quarter of beds for the sickest patients have remained consistently available for the last month, even as the number of confirmed and suspected COVID-19 patients in intensive care units climbed. These patients were recently using about 41% of ICU beds. Hospitals created more room by using beds not normally earmarked for ICU patients. They’ve also canceled elective surgeries and procedures to free up space. WBEZ has previously reported this trend.
  • Chicago has enough ventilators, too: The number of confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients on ventilators has grown from about 1% to around 25% in the last month. Arwady says that’s a sign of the virus’ impact on patients. She also said the fact that Chicagoans helped flatten the curve in the number of cases gave hospitals space and time to continue to treat patients who needed respirators to help them breathe.
  • An early heads-up: The Chicago Department of Public Health first learned about a case of a new pneumonia of unknown origin in Wuhan, China, in December. The intel came from BlueDot, a health data company the city partners with to better understand infectious disease cases around the world. The notice came about a week before the department would get an alert from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Arwady said the city at the time considered the virus to pose a low risk here. That was before the pandemic surged around the world and before Chicago confirmed its first COVID-19 case.
  • Chicagoans are staying home: A new map that uses anonymous cell phone data shows the majority of Chicagoans are staying home during the pandemic. But while at least 80% of residents in North Side neighborhoods are staying home, fewer residents (in some cases at least 60%) in some South and West Side neighborhoods are staying put. A spokesman for the Chicago public health department said the agency is studying the disparity. But COVID-19 is already disproportionately impacting communities on the South and West sides. Black residents are dying at far higher rates than other racial groups, and experts say the pandemic could widen the racial wealth gap among black and Latino workers who are less likely to have jobs that allow them to work from home.
  • Testing continues to expand: While the number of people who have been tested for COVID-19 has increased, the percentage of people testing positive has remained stable. As of April 12, nearly 8,600 Chicagoans have tested positive, while about 20,800 have tested negative.

Kristen Schorsch covers public health on the government and politics team for WBEZ. Follow her @kschorsch.

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