• 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.

Teachers union says it has compromised but have “hit a brick wall” with the mayor

Chicago Teachers Union
The leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union discusses their latest COVID-19 safety plan on Saturday January 8, 2022. Sarah Karp / WBEZ

Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey Monday morning said there’s been progress at the bargaining table, but charged that Mayor Lori Lightfoot was holding up the return to classes.

At a press conference, Sharkey said the union had compromised on two key areas where the mayor was refusing to relent.

The mayor has been a hard “no” on allowing the entire school district to remote learning. She has also refused to budge on the CTU’s demand that all students be eligible for COVID-19 testing unless their parents opt them out. The mayor wants families to have to opt in.

Sharkey said “we’ve worked out” these two issues, without offering details.

But he said they’ve “hit a brick wall” over the last major sticking point. That’s the metric for when individual schools would revert to remote learning. It’s significant that Sharkey said individual schools and not all schools, which implies the union has dropped its demand for a metric triggering all schools to go remote. That’s something the mayor and CPS strongly oppose.

“She’s relentlessly refusing to seek accommodation, and we’re trying to find a way to get people back from school,” Sharkey said. He initially said she was “relentlessly stupid,” but then quickly moved on.

When asked for a comment, the mayor’s office referred to a statement from the mayor and the schools CEO Sunday night: “Although we have been negotiating hard throughout the day, there has not been sufficient progress for us to predict a return to class tomorrow.”

CPS classes have been canceled since last Wednesday amid the standoff between the teachers union and the school district.

Also Monday morning, parents were demanding an end to the stalemate and a return to in-person learning.

They gathered at two Rogers Park elementary schools, in Little Village and at a school near Midway Airport.

At Rogers Elementary School, about 20 parents and students stood outside the school in protest, saying they wanted a return to in-person learning. They held signs that read “Schools are safe” and “Kids belong in class not on a computer.”

Parents said their students were vaccinated, that their COVID-19 testing program worked and that they wanted them back in classrooms. CTU members also turned up to share information about what they want in a COVID-19 safety agreement.

In Little Village, parents gathered at a church said they just wanted something — either remote or in-person. They said they’d prefer in-person classes but just wanted to get back to learning

An online petition supporting CPS’ decision not to revert to remote learning had about 5,200 signatures on Monday morning.

Mayor Lightfoot on Sunday said she was standing up for parents who want in-person learning.

“This is an untenable situation and completely, utterly avoidable,” Lightfoot said in an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press. “So I’m going to be on the side of the parents fighting every single day to get our kids back in school.

As COVID cases rise dramatically among kids

COVID-19 Kids
Julian Salgado, 7, receives his second dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine from Lurie Children's hospital registered nurse Elvia Cervantes at Northwest Community Church in Chicago, Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021. Nam Y. Huh / AP Photo

As the omicron variant rages, an increasing number of children are being hospitalized with COVID-19.

Across Illinois as of Jan. 5, hospitals reported 173 patients who were 17 years old or younger, according to a state public health department spokeswoman. Kids and teens made up 2% of all hospitalized patients with COVID-19 at the time.

Given that the number of pediatric hospitalizations remain statistically small, it’s a sign that many children and teens have been largely protected from getting seriously sick if they were infected with COVID-19.

Still, this is a frightening vision, and one that doctors and public health officials say is preventable.

Read more: As COVID cases rise dramatically among kids, here’s what Illinois parents need to know

Two antiviral COVID medications are coming to Illinois soon

COVID testing
Free COVID-19 testing signs are displayed outside of COVID-19 testing site in Chicago, Friday, Dec. 10, 2021. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press

The Illinois Department of Public Health announced two new COVID-19 oral antiviral drugs will be coming to the state later this month.

In a statement Thursday, the department said Paxlovid and Molnupiravir will be available. Both medications can be taken by people who are diagnosed with mild-to-moderate cases of COVID to help prevent becoming seriously ill, including preventing hospitalization.

The department said Paxlovid may reduce the risk of hospitalization by 89%, and Molnupiravir, by 30%. The medications will be available by prescription only and should be taken as soon as possible after diagnosis.

“These new oral antivirals add new tools to our toolbox to keep people with COVID-19 out of the hospital,” said IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike in a news release. “While vaccination, including boosters, is still the best way to avoid infection and prevent severe illness from COVID-19, these new antivirals given emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration can help treat those who get infected and have a higher risk of becoming severely ill.”

IDPH is working with pharmacies across the state to provide the drugs. The department noted that the medications are free from the federal government, but will only be available in limited quantities.

The state expects to refresh its stock of the drugs every two weeks.

The latest on Day 3 of canceled classes for Chicago Public Schools

CPS CEO Pedro Martinez speaks at a press conference
CPS CEO Pedro Martinez speaks at a press conference on Jan. 4, 2022. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

It’s the third day of canceled classes for Chicago Public Schools students and frustration is growing on all sides.

Chicago Teachers Union members voted Tuesday to temporarily work until Jan. 18 amid a surge in COVID-19 cases. They want additional safety measures in schools.

In response, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS CEO Pedro Martinez canceled classes, calling the refusal to work in-person illegal and unnecessary. They say schools are safe and think reverting to remote learning should happen only on a school-by-school basis.

Here’s the latest:

  • The mayor Thursday night said CPS and the teachers union bargained from noon into the evening on Thursday. In a statement from the mayor and Martinez, they described the sessions as “productive.”

  • Talks are expected to continue on Friday.

  • CPS had hoped to offer in-person activities at some schools on Friday, but most don’t have enough staff to provide anything. The school district told principals they could provide academic enrichment if between 20% to 60% of staff reported to schools. Only schools with 70% or more staff could offer instruction. On Thursday, just 13% of teachers reported to schools. CPS provided school-level data on staff reporting to each building.

  • While many parents support the push for remote learning, many other parents want their students back in school buildings. An online petition supporting CPS’ decision not to revert to remote learning had about 2,700 signatures Friday morning.

  • Meanwhile, in a rare public statement, more than 100 principals and assistant principals called out Martinez in a letter published by the Chicago Principals & Administrators Association.

The administrators accused Martinez of blindsiding them with the plan to open individual schools on a case-by-case basis starting on Friday based on whether they had sufficient staff and resources.

In part, the letter read, there “should not be an ad hoc reactionary response that creates inequities that are predictable among social and economic lines. Instead, it feels as if the district’s approach was more focused on eroding the trust we’ve worked so hard to develop by pitting schools, principals, parents, and staff against each other than on actually providing safety and support for students and communities.”

The administrators said this is not the plan CPS officials had shared with them in meetings on Thursday and pits schools against each other, principals against teachers and hurts under-resourced schools.

Also a survey by the principals association on Monday found that 75% of 255 principals that responded support a move to report learning for a week or two. CPS has 512 district-run schools and 636 total schools including charters and other nontraditional schools.

The COVID-19 case rate for Black Chicagoans has risen nearly sixfold since omicron’s arrival

A COVID-19 testing site sign is seen at the Hawthorn Mall parking lot in Vernon Hills
A COVID-19 testing site sign is seen at the Hawthorn Mall parking lot in Vernon Hills, Ill., Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press

In Illinois, no one has escaped the impact of the COVID-19 omicron variant. Every county, age group and racial demographic has experienced an explosion of COVID-19 cases since the first omicron case was reported in Chicago on Dec. 7, 2021.

But the cases have skyrocketed for some groups and geographic areas more than others, shows a WBEZ analysis of COVID-19 data from the Illinois Department of Public Health and the city of Chicago. The rapid growth of cases has even occurred in areas where the vast majority of residents have received at least two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Black Chicagoans are once again witnessing the highest and sharpest growing COVID-19 rates in the city. The seven-day case rate for Black Chicagoans has risen nearly sixfold since omicron’s arrival, the most among the city’s four largest racial or ethnic groups. And, as of Monday, the rate for Black Chicagoans was the highest — 26% more than the rate for white Chicagoans, the group with the second-highest figure.

Statewide, COVID-19 cases have increased the most among young adults — particularly individuals in their 20s and 30s — since the arrival of omicron. But the growth in cases for those groups has been even more pronounced in Chicago.

For instance, 20- to 29-year-olds in the city have seen COVID-19 cases increase by more than 500% between the four-week period before and after omicron was found in the city. In the four weeks since Dec. 7, 2021, individuals in their 20s and 30s, collectively, account for 45% of all COVID-19 cases reported in Chicago.

Read more: Chicago has been hit the hardest as omicron spreads through Illinois

Alderman says COVID-19 is impacting an already depleted CPD

CPD
Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

The Chicago Police Department is refusing to say how many of its officers are out sick with COVID-19, even as it cancels days off for officers this upcoming weekend.

The lack of transparency comes amid ongoing concerns over officer staffing throughout the city.

According to the city’s inspector general, there were 11,913 sworn officers in CPD as of last month. That’s down almost 1,300 from where staffing levels were two years ago.

Ald. Anthony Napolitano, 41st Ward, told the Chicago Sun-Times that coronavirus cases were hurting staffing levels even more — with 72 officers out sick in just one Northwest Side police district at one point.

WBEZ repeatedly asked the department for a count of all officers currently out with COVID-19, but the department declined to answer the question. Instead a spokesperson said 5,888 CPD members have tested positive for the coronavirus since the beginning of the pandemic, and the vast majority have returned to duty.

Meanwhile, the city is nearing the end of arbitration with police unions over a mandate that all city employees be vaccinated against COVID-19. Currently police officers are exempted from the requirement until the arbitration process is completed. Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara said an arbitration decision won’t come for three weeks or more.

According to information from the mayor’s office, almost all police officers have submitted their vaccination status to the city, and about 71% of police employees have reported that they are vaccinated against COVID-19.

Chicago’s top doc answers COVID-19 questions

Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady
Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady in Chicago on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021. Youngrae Kim / Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool

The flu vs. COVID-19, incubation times and new oral medications for the virus.

Those were among the topics Chicago’s top health official addressed in her weekly Thursday update on the pandemic.

Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady responded to questions that people asked her on Facebook.

Unlike last year, there’s a flu season happening now, she said. And people are wondering how to distinguish flu and COVID cases.

“There is no way to know whether you have COVID-19 or the flu without a COVID test,” she said. “All of the tests – very specific. Meaning, when COVID is high like it is right now, any positive test is positive.”

Arwady also said it can take a few days for the virus to incubate and result in a positive test for someone who has it.

“If you just gave me COVID right now, it doesn’t matter what test I take, I would be negative,” Arwady explained. “If I took it tomorrow, it doesn’t matter what test I take, I would almost certainly be negative. It takes time once the virus gets in for the virus to start copying itself.”

The omicron incubation period is now typically a three- to five-day window, she said.

COVID cases are on the rise in Chicago. With a daily case average of 4,998, the city is seeing about 21 percent more cases this week than it did last week. There are 112 hospitalizations per day on average, and the positivity rate sits at 23 percent.

Arwady also touched on new oral antiviral medications in development for treating COVID. She said, “These are just starting to come, they’ve just been approved.”

Arwady said they work by stopping the virus from mutating itself. She said the public should expect to start seeing more of these medications, although rollout will be limited at first and the drugs must be prescribed.

Local theaters postpone productions as COVID-19 cases rise

Chicago’s Lyric Opera
Chicago's Lyric Opera is one of several cultural institutions postponing performances amid the latest surge in COVID-19 cases. vxla / Flickr

Rising COVID-19 cases are taking a toll on local theater productions, with the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Lyric Opera of Chicago and Goodman Theatre announcing changes to their lineups Wednesday.

Chicago Shakespeare postponed its world premiere of The Notebook. The musical had been slated to run in March, but will be performed Sept. 6 through Oct. 16 in The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare instead.

Goodman has postponed The Outsiders, a musical adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s novel and Francis Ford Coppola’s film. The Outsiders’ future date will be announced later.

In its place, Goodman will produce Life After, a new musical from lyricist Britta Johnson. Life After runs June 11 to July 17 in Goodman’s Albert Theatre.

And Lyric Opera postponed its production of Proving Up, which will be rescheduled for a future season.

In a statement Wednesday, Lyric’s general director, president and CEO Anthony Freud said the decision was based on “our current understanding of the ever-changing public health situation, with the goal of keeping the safety of our company, our audiences, and our artists as our overriding priority.”

What should I do if I lost my vax card?

Vaccine card
Getty Images

In Cook County, patrons at bars, restaurants, gyms and other indoor public venues must now prove they are fully vaccinated by showing their ID along with their CDC vaccination card — or a photo or copy of their CDC card.

But showing proof at the door can get tricky for residents who got vaccinated outside the U.S or who lost all records of their vaccination.

People who lost their vax card can obtain a copy of their records by going to the State of Illinois Vax Verify portal. Minors must have a parent or guardian request their record by filling out an immunization request form and then emailing it to dph.icare@illinois.gov. Residents can also contact the clinic or health care provider that administered the shots.

Residents who got vaccinated in other states will need to go back to the out-of-state clinic or pharmacy for their original vaccination records.

For those vaccinated outside the United States, showing proof of vaccination from another country is valid, according to city and state officials. But residents who received a vaccine that has not been approved by the U.S. Federal Drug and Food Administration need to check and make sure their vaccine is approved by the World Health Organization.

So far, the FDA has approved the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson vaccines. The WHO has approved ten COVID-19 vaccines including the Sinovac and AstraZeneca vaccines. (Anyone who got vaccinated in countries where health officials recommend a single dose of the Moderna vaccine is not considered fully vaccinated in the United States.)

Residents who are fully inoculated with a vaccine that is not approved by the FDA or WHO need to get vaccinated all over again at a local clinic or pharmacy at least 28 days after their last dose abroad. Public health officials don’t recommend an additional booster shot in this case. An additional booster shot is recommended for those who received a vaccine that has been approved by the WHO but not the FDA.

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @AdrianaCardMag.

CPS cancels classes Wednesday after 73% of teachers reject in-person learning

WBEZ
Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez on Tuesday said he was trying to reach a "reasonable agreement" with the union on COVID-19 mitigation measures. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago Public Schools canceled classes Wednesday for its more than 300,000 students after the members of the Chicago Teachers Union voted Tuesday night to defy orders to teach in-person.

The union wants teachers to be able to work remotely, but the school district is calling this a “strike” and Mayor Lori Lightfoot called the union’s actions “illegal.”

Union leaders said not allowing for virtual teaching amounts to a “lockout.”

About 73% of the union’s more than 25,000 members Tuesday night voted to revert to remote learning. Under the measure, teachers and staff would stay remote until Jan. 18 or until the city no longer meets metrics for all schools to move to remote learning laid out in an agreement in place last school year — whichever comes first. That metric called for remote learning if, among other things, the positivity rate was above 15%. Currently, it is 23%.

The school buildings will remain open on Wednesday for essential services, such as meals, vaccinations and COVID-19 testing. There will be no classes but CPS said staff will serve students who come.

CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said the district will communicate with parents about future plans.

The mayor and school district could lock teachers and students out of virtual classrooms, dock pay and file a grievance with the state. But that would likely prolong the fight and keep students out of classes for longer, which both sides say they don’t want. The mayor referenced “Groundhog Day” several times Tuesday night in a nod to a repeat of the late nights spent last year battling over remote learning and an agreement to return to in-person classes.

Read more: CPS cancels classes Wednesday after 73% of teachers reject in-person learning