• Tracking the variant

Live updates: Omicron Variant 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.

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

Chicago Teachers Union approves COVID-19 safety agreement

a CTU sign seen in the window of a car
Teachers and members of the CTU assemble a car caravan near Union Park in the West Loop of Chicago on January 5, 2022. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union narrowly approved the COVID-19 safety agreement reached this week with the school district, bringing to a formal end the standoff between the union and the school district and the mayor that closed schools for five days.

Nearly 56% of 18,600 CTU members who voted said yes to the agreement, the CTU announced Wednesday evening. The slim margin reflects a strong sentiment by school staff that the deal did not include enough protections to make a difference for student and staff safety.

Teachers and parents also continue to worry about staff shortages, and that was borne out Wednesday as some schools struggled to staff their classrooms and offer instruction. The school district said nearly 89% of teachers reported to work overall.

Read more: Chicago teachers approve COVID-19 safety agreement

As Chicago students resume class, teachers vote on a deal many say falls short

Martha Rodea and her husband drop off their kids at McAuliffe Elementary
Martha Rodea and her husband drop off their kids at McAuliffe Elementary on Chicago's Near Northwest Side Wednesday morning. Susie An / WBEZ

Chicago Public Schools classes resumed for 272,000 students Wednesday morning after classes were canceled for five days. Teachers had until 4 pm. to vote whether to approve the school safety agreement reached with the school district. 

Many students said they were excited to be back, but the mood was far from celebratory as the omicron surge continues. Many teachers and parents argue the COVID-19 safety deal the Chicago Teachers Union and the school district reached doesn’t offer enough protections.

At some schools, students and parents said little instruction was taking place because of staff absences. At Taft High School on the far Northwest Side, junior Emma Pakieser asked her mother to pick her up after spending much of the morning in the auditorium after class after class had no teacher or substitute.

Emma said she didn’t feel safe in an auditorium with dozens of other students, many of whom didn’t have quality masks and pulled down their masks to talk to friends. She said the school handed out N95-type masks at the beginning of the day, but many kids were still wearing lower quality ones.

Her mother, Sean Pakieser, said it’s better to keep students home if there is no learning happening and safety protocols aren’t followed. Her daughter was able to log into some classes from home. She says the debate has gone beyond school safety.

“It’s not even a fight about ‘is it safe or not’ ” Pakieser said. “It is: Are the schools actually able to function? This is not a functional school if students are locked together into a crowded auditorium.”

Chicago Public Schools said 82% of teachers reported to Taft on Wednesday. Overall, nearly 89% of teachers reported to work. Student attendance was still being calculated. It was low on Jan. 3 and 4, the first days after winter break, at 66% and 72% respectively. CPS’ COVID tracker shows that 9,200 students and 2,200 adults were in quarantine as of Tuesday. 

CPS said in some cases in high schools when there isn’t a substitute,  students can be moved to an auditorium and the majority are supposed to be logged into remote classes. CPS says its facing a national substitute  shortage and is offering incentives to hire more. It says it’s added 455 since the start of the school year.

The school district said it did not move any schools to school-wide remote learning on Wednesday, but some schools had multiple classrooms that were flipped to remote temporarily.

The school safety agreement teachers voted on Wednesday needs a simple majority of CTU members to pass. If it fails, the union’s governing body, which meets at 4:30 p.m., could vote to restart the labor action, which was set to expire on Jan. 18. Talks with the school district would resume.

CPS’ restart comes as the state on Tuesday shortened the recommended quarantine time for students and teachers from 10 to five days. This follows a change in CDC’s guidelines on Jan. 6.

The Illinois Department of Public Health and the State Board of Education said students and employees with COVID-19 should stay home for a minimum of five days and wear a mask around others for another five days. Returning is only allowed if students are fever free or asymptomatic. This guidance affects both public and private schools.

The new guidance also says if an adult 18 or older is a close contact of someone who has COVID-19 and hasn’t received a booster shot when they’re eligible, they must quarantine for five days or participate in a test-to-stay program.

Teacher union leaders told the Chicago Tribune they have serious concerns about the guidance, saying it is impossible to ensure students wear masks consistently and ensure all safety mitigations are followed.

In Chicago, parent Marth Rodea is worried about the safety measures at her children’s school. She said her daughters were signed up for weekly testing but it only happened once every other week.

She says she’s been standing with teachers in their call for a temporary shift to remote learning.

“CPS should definitely help out their teachers,” Rodea said as she dropped off her three young children at McAuliffe Elementary on the Near Northwest Side. “At the end, they’re the ones on the front line and they should have a say.”

Still, she sent her three daughters — in pre-K, kindergarten and third grade — to school because they’re all vaccinated and they tested negative so she believes they won’t spread the virus.

Rodea said she and her husband work but were lucky enough to have child care during the five days school was canceled. She said her girls were happy to be returning to class.

Illinois hospitals have a record number of COVID-19 patients

Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health
Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, at a press conference on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020, in Chicago. Teresa Crawford / Associated Press

Illinois hospitals are bursting with a record number of COVID-19 patients.

And the omicron surge fueling that capacity crisis also is showing no signs of easing in Illinois, the state’s top public health official told reporters Wednesday.

Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said more than 7,100 patients are currently hospitalized with the coronavirus, which is nearly 1,000 more than at any previous time.

“We have never had this many COVID patients in the hospital at any point in the pandemic. Not in spring of 2020, not in the winter of 2020,” she said. “This is the absolutely highest number and not just by a couple. Our previous totals have been smashed.”

And while the omicron surge has shown rapid declines in other places, like South Africa, there is no evidence to show that Illinois has reached its peak in total cases, Ezike said.

Hospitalizations dipped slightly in the past 24 hours but crept higher a day earlier, which she said is not the consistent downward trend necessary to declare the worst has passed.

“I will be the first to announce it when we can say that pretty confidently. Crossing my fingers and toes,” Ezike said. “But I just don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.”

She said the available vaccines have been very effective at keeping people with COVID out of Illinois hospitals – and that less than one-tenth of one percent of patients are vaccinated.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot tests positive for COVID

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Tuesday that she tested positive for COVID-19. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot tested positive today for COVID-19. A statement from her office says she feels fine, but has “cold-like” symptoms.

Lightfoot got vaccinated during a public press conference last January and her office says she is boosted. She plans to work from home and follow CDC guidelines for isolating.

The news comes one day after the mayor struck a deal with the Chicago Teachers Union that would allow for students to return to schools for in-person learning.

Lightfoot has done several one-on-one interviews with reporters, many of them virtual, and held three late night press conferences in-person over the past week to address the ongoing negotiations.

It is not clear if anyone else in her office or other people she came in close contact with are also being quarantined.

At the start of the pandemic, Lightfoot urged city residents to “stay home and save lives” and issued a series of restrictions to bend the curve. She instituted the city’s mask mandate and implemented a requirement that city workers be vaccinated. Chicago also now requires proof of vaccination for indoor public spaces.

In announcing her positive test, Lightfoot urged people to get vaccinated and boosted.

“It’s the only way to beat this pandemic,” the statement said.

In-person school for CPS students resumes Wednesday

Scene from CPS classroom
Students in Patricia Orozco Rosas second grade math class at Azuela Elementary School in October 2021. Chicago Public School students will be heading back to the classroom after staying home since Jan. 5, 2022 during a standoff between the city and the teachers union. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

The Chicago Teachers Union’s elected representatives on Monday night voted to suspend its remote work action and return to school buildings on Tuesday. Students will return on Wednesday.

The union’s 700-member elected House of Delegates approved the measure to suspend the remote work action, with 63% in favor. The tentative COVID-19 safety agreement still needs to be approved by the union’s more than 25,000 union members later this week.

An exhausted CTU president Jesse Sharkey described the deal as falling short of many of the union’s demands, but said they were proud the union took a stand.

Read more: Chicago classes to restart Wednesday after the Chicago Teachers Union suspends remote work action.