• Tracking the variant

Live updates: Omicron in Chicago

Chicago is experiencing a surge of new COVID-19 infections driven by the highly contagious omicron variant.

You can find the latest news here.

Gov. JB Pritzker vetoes paid COVID-19 leave for school staff

Many Illinois teachers have had to use sick days for absences related to COVID-19. Gov. JB Pritzker vetoed a bill that would have required school districts to give paid time off for COVID-related absences, but plans to push similar legislation just for vaccinated staff. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker vetoed a bill Monday that would have required public school districts and colleges to provide paid leave for workers who take days off related to COVID-19. But the plan isn’t dead.

Pritzker came to an agreement with the state’s teachers union and said he intends to advance a compromise replacement bill that focuses on vaccinated staff. Under the governor’s proposal, only fully vaccinated school employees will qualify for paid leave and restoration of sick days.

In a statement, the governor acknowledged workers who are “doing their part” by becoming fully vaccinated.

“They deserve to be able to take the time they need to respond to the ongoing devastating impacts the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have on them and their families,” Pritzker said.

Read more: Vaccinated school staff may still get paid leave after Gov. JB Pritzker vetoes original bill

New data show vaccination rates by school

CPS student Jazlyn Salgado gets the COVID-19 vaccine
CPS student Jazlyn Salgado got the COVID-19 vaccine at Michele Clark High School, a Chicago public school, on August 12, 2021. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

New vaccination data, obtained through a public records request, is the first to capture school-level vaccination rates in elementary schools. Five- to 11-year-olds only became eligible for vaccinations in early November. The state data, which is provided to Chicago Public Schools twice a month and is matched with CPS enrollment information, captures vaccinations through Jan. 18.

Data highlights include:

  • About 23% of elementary school students in CPS are fully vaccinated. Another 10% of students have had a single shot.

  • Meanwhile, vaccination rates among Chicago public high school students have stayed virtually the same over the past few months. Currently, about 53% are fully vaccinated. Another 5% of students have received one shot. As of Dec. 10, about 51% of high school students were fully vaccinated, according to an analysis by Chalkbeat Chicago.

  • At elementary schools with majority Asian, white or diverse student bodies, an average of 44% of students are fully vaccinated. At majority Latino elementary schools, it is 24% and at majority Black elementary schools, it is 11%.

  • At high schools with majority Asian, white or diverse student bodies, an average of 75% of students are fully vaccinated. At majority Latino schools, it’s 61%. At majority Black schools the vaccination rate is 35%.

Read more: One in four CPS elementary students is vaccinated, with rates varying widely by school

CPS failed to disclose a switch in its COVID-19 reporting

Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez at a news conference
Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez at a news conference on January 4, 2022. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago Public Schools changed the way it reports COVID-19 cases at individual schools, but did not disclose it, resulting in parents getting an undercount of positive cases in the school their child attends.

The change during winter break was implemented at the time the omicron surge was taking hold, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the school district were trying to convince parents it was safe to send their children back to school. CPS insists the change was not meant to mislead.

On its COVID tracker web page, CPS was reporting data on cases district-wide and school-by-school that, according to the district, still needed to be confirmed. But on Dec. 20, in the winter break, CPS began reporting only closed cases — those that have been verified by a contact tracing team — at the school level.

Though CPS continued to include the larger number of open and closed cases in the district total, parents no longer were seeing the additional open cases at their individual school. This painted an imprecise picture for families.

Read more: Chicago Public Schools failed to notify families about a significant change in its COVID-19 reporting

Chicago’s sewage is helping the city track COVID-19

Sutichak / Adobe Stock

Chicago health officials are now tracking the spread of COVID-19 infections through a non-traditional source: the city’s poop. The city recently joined statewide and national efforts to monitor our sewage for levels of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Since people with COVID-19 actually shed the virus in their poop, health officials now have another tool to help keep tabs on infections.

This week the Chicago Department of Public Health released its most recent wastewater COVID-19 surveillance report based on samples collected last December from three main water treatment plants and sewer sites they’re targeting in seven neighborhood areas spread throughout the city.

The results aren’t necessarily surprising. The wastewater data confirmed that during the last two weeks of December, COVID-19 infections increased across all the seven neighborhood zones where samples were collected. The data also showed an increase in the samples collected from all three treatment plants.

Read more: Every time you poop, you’re helping Chicago health officials track COVID

Illinois begins focusing more on COVID-19 hospitalization data as cases decline

John O’Connor File / AP Photo

Illinois Governor JB Pritzker is cautiously optimistic the Omicron wave of the pandemic has peaked.

Both hospitalizations and the number of people requiring intensive care have fallen daily over the last week.

“In the first two weeks of 2022, 14,000 new people have gotten their first vaccine dose every single day,” Pritzker said at a news conference. “That’s around 100,000 newly vaccinated people, about the population of Peoria, every week.”

Pritzker said he thinks some people who were adamantly against the vaccine are starting to change their minds.

The state is focusing more on hospitalization data and less on case numbers, in part, due to the increasing prevalence of at-home tests.

Such tests are part of the state’s arsenal in dealing with the next variant.

Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, also talked about genomic sequencing that will help identify the next variant, plus an infrastructure that makes vaccines and boosters free and easily available.

She said the state has systems in place to prepare for the next variant, but ultimately, it’s up to individuals.

“People have to get themselves ready just as they would for any natural disaster and that preparation involves getting boosted,” Ezike said. “You know, people who got one dose just to get the one dose, like, you are not fully prepared for the next variant.”

There were nearly 7,400 people across Illinois hospitalized with COVID on Jan. 12.

On Jan. 19, that number was just over 6,500.

Chicago’s COVID case and positivity rates are down from last week

Dr. Allison Arwady
Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, speaks to reporters on March 24, 2020, in Chicago. Tyler LaRiviere / Chicago Sun-Times via AP, Pool

There’s a glimmer of hope in Chicago regarding COVID-19: the daily average case rate is down, and so is the positivity rate.

As of Tuesday, there are 4,378 cases per day in the city – down 24% from last week’s figure.

This number is only meaningful when examined alongside the positivity rate, which is down 19% from last week.

“In that same context, remember, we always say we want to look at cases and positivity together. If you see those cases and positivity moving the same direction, you know, it’s a real chain,” Chicago Public Health Director Allison Arwady said. “So if you’re seeing both cases and positivity go up, you know, things are getting worse. If cases and positivity are both going down, you know, things are getting better. And if they’re going in opposite directions, you have to do a little more looking closely.”

Although the decrease in case and positivity rates is cause for hope, the number of hospitalizations and deaths are up by 18% and 38% respectively.

Arwady said she plans to answer more people’s questions about isolation and quarantine on Thursday.

CPS students walk out of class demanding greater COVID-19 safety

Students protest outside of Chicago Public Schools headquarters
Students protest outside of Chicago Public Schools headquarters on Jan. 14, 2022. Susie An / WBEZ

A few hundred students gathered outside Chicago Public Schools headquarters Friday to protest the school district’s COVID-19 safety plan amid a surge of new cases and to call for other improvements in the schools.

The youth walkout comes on the heels of the recent standoff between CPS and the teachers union over the return to in-person learning that shuttered classrooms for five days. Union members narrowly voted to approve a reopening deal with the school district on Wednesday, but many remain concerned that the agreement doesn’t include enough protections to make a difference for student and staff safety.

COVID booster rates lag among Black and Latino residents in Illinois

In this Sept. 14, 2021, file photo, a health worker administers a dose of a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine during a vaccination clinic.
In this Sept. 14, 2021, file photo, a health worker administers a dose of a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine during a vaccination clinic. Matt Rourke / Associated Press, File

COVID-19 booster rates for Black and Latino residents in Illinois lag far behind those for the white and Asian population, according to a WBEZ analysis of data from the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Statewide, as of Thursday, about 17.5% and 15.3% of Black and Latino residents, respectively, have received the third dose of the coronavirus vaccine. Meanwhile, about 36.2% of Asian residents and 32.3% of white residents have gotten the booster.

In Chicago, the booster rates for Black and Latino residents are not much higher, with both groups posting figures at about 17.6%. White residents had the highest rates of booster vaccination in the city, at about 37.7%, with Asian residents close behind, at 34.8%.

Outside the city, in suburban Cook County, rates of boosted Black residents were higher. About 20.8% of Black residents in suburban Cook have received the third shot. Latino residents showed lower rates than in the city, at 15.7%. As with the city and state, white and Asian residents in suburban Cook had the highest rates of booster vaccination — 37.7% and 37.4%, respectively.

One study showed that a booster is needed to provide immunity against the omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the booster to everyone 12 and over who received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccination series, and to adults 18 and over who got the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccine. Those who got the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine series can get boosted five months later; residents who got the J&J/Janssen vaccine are eligible for a booster two months after the shot.

Chicago’s top doc answers COVID-19 questions

Dr. Allison Arwady, the Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner speaks to the public, as numbers of positive COVID-19 cases increase, at City Hall on January 4, 2022. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago’s top health official said Thursday it’s still too early to know if COVID-19 infections in the city have peaked or are on the way down.

Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said Chicago continues to see an omicron surge.

On Thursday, the city reported a daily average of about 5,000 new cases of COVID-19, down 7% from a week ago. But the daily average of hospitalizations is nearly 200, an increase of 24% compared with last week. And the daily average of deaths is 20, up 51% from a week ago.

Arwady said, “Risk remains relatively high, especially for folks who are unvaccinated.”

She added, “We’ve got more people right now hospitalized in non-ICU with COVID in Chicago than we have ever had, going all the way back to the beginning of the pandemic. And across the ICU we’ve got 312 people in the ICU with COVID-19. Almost all of these folks are unvaccinated.”

Arwady said the best way to prevent the spread of the virus is to keep up with handwashing, maintaining physical distance and wearing a facemask.

Her department this week sent all Chicago aldermanic offices 20,000 KN95 masks intended for community distribution. They are meant to be handed out first to those at high risk of severe illness, and then to the rest of the public.

The department said it’s a one-time distribution to curb the spread of omicron.

Residents can set up a pick up time with their alderman through Friday.

COVID-19 case numbers drop at Cook County Jail

The exterior of the Cook County Jail
The exterior of the Cook County Jail pictured on Sept. 12, 2018. Bill Healy / WBEZ

In another sign that Chicago-area infections from the coronavirus’s omicron variant may be ebbing, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart is reporting a drop in COVID-19 cases at the massive jail he runs on the city’s Southwest Side.

His office on Wednesday reported that 352 of the jail’s 5,848 detainees were “currently positive” for the virus. Those cases were 81 fewer than the count last Friday, when the jail set a pandemic record with 433 positive detainees.

Dart’s office says sheriff’s personnel and Cermak Health Services, a county unit under County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, have ramped up testing and vaccinations long before omicron’s arrival. The office says it has also been showing educational videos about the benefits of the vaccines on a daily basis throughout the jail.

The sheriff’s office has reported no deaths among detainees due to COVID-19 during the omicron wave. During earlier stages of the pandemic, according to the office, 10 detainees who had tested positive for the virus died at local hospitals.

Read more: After a record high, Cook County Jail’s COVID-19 infections subside