Chicago ramps up testing as it anticipates omicron’s arrival. Here’s what we know.

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
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

Chicago ramps up testing as it anticipates omicron’s arrival. Here’s what we know.

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The emergence of the omicron variant in the U.S. comes as Chicago officials were already bracing for the possibility of another wave of infections. The first case of the omicron variant was confirmed in California today, and Chicago’s public health commissioner said the variant’s arrival in Chicago is just a matter of time. 

“I would expect that we would see some cases likely detected in the days or weeks to come,” Dr. Allison Arwady said Tuesday. 

Last Friday, the World Health Organization designated omicron a “variant of concern,” meaning there’s repeated transmission that’s concerning from a public health perspective. In response, the city is expanding its variant testing efforts, including doubling the city’s testing from hospitals and expanding its monitoring of wastewater.

Here’s a look at how Chicago is faring with cases and vaccinations and the outlook for the next few weeks:

What are case numbers like right now?

As of today, Chicago is averaging 454 cases per day, down 25% from last week. 

However, Arwady cautioned against putting too much stock into that decline. 

“We were averaging just a few days ago over 600 cases a day,” Arwady said. “Right now we’re down under 500, largely because of the decreased testing with the holidays.”

Arwady said Chicago saw the same pattern during the Thanksgiving holiday last year, and she anticipates we’ll see a rise in cases as early as next week.

Chicago remains in a high transmission category for cases diagnosed per day. 

How is the city performing in terms of vaccinations?

Last week, Chicago hit its end-of-the-year goal of having 77% of eligible people ages 12 and older receive at least one dose of the COVID vaccine, but Arwady said there’s still more work to be done.

Only 70.9% of eligible Chicagoans 12 and older have completed their vaccine series. 

“So we’ll need to see that keep moving up,” Arwady said. “It’s not as high as it should be, particularly with this variant potentially on the right internationally.”

Almost a quarter of Chicagoans ages five to 11 have received a first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. 

The city is expanding its Protect Chicago at home program from five to seven days starting next week. Chicagoans will be able to schedule an at-home vaccination appointment on weekends starting Dec. 11.

If you are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, your best bet for being fully protected by Christmas, Kwanzaa or New Year’s Eve is to receive the single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot by Dec. 11. 

What do we know about the omicron variant?

The omicron variant was first reported by officials in South Africa on Nov. 23.

By Sunday, the U.N. health agency issued a statement about omicron that amounted to: We don’t know much yet

The statement said scientists have not yet determined if omicron is more transmissible — more easily spread between people — compared to other variants like the highly transmissible delta variant. The agency also said it wasn’t clear if infection with omicron causes more severe disease, even as it cited data from South Africa showing rising rates of hospitalization there — but that could be attributed to more people getting infected with COVID-19, not specifically omicron.

“There is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with omicron are different from those from other variants,” WHO said. It added that there’s no evidence — yet — that COVID vaccines, tests and treatments are any less effective against the new version.

Why are scientists worried about omicron?

So far, omicron’s distinctive characteristic may be an increased risk of reinfection with the variant — in other words, that people who’ve already had COVID-19 could get reinfected more easily.

The variant appears to have a high number of mutations — about 30 — in the coronavirus’s spike protein, which could affect how easily it spreads between people.

Some experts say that could mean that vaccine makers may have to adapt their products at some point.

“I’m really confident that if it is necessary, and there needed to be another version of a booster, then companies are saying probably within just three months or so they could make that tweak and make it available,” Arwady said.

It will likely take weeks to sort out if omicron is more infectious and if vaccines are still effective against it.

How is Chicago monitoring the omicron variant?

Arwady said the city is much better positioned to test for COVID variants than it was last year at this time, thanks to funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Chicago Department of Public Health had previously partnered with Rush University Medical Center to gather and conduct genetic tests on samples from hospitals across the city. It is now planning on doubling the number of samples that are sent from hospitals to Rush.

The city is also expanding its wastewater testing, including adding capacity at O’Hare International Airport. That testing can show whether there’s COVID spread in a neighborhood or specific facility. 

Should I be worried? What does this mean?

Arwady said that she’s not worried personally as someone who is fully vaccinated, boosted and who takes precautions when indoors.

But, she said, she worries about those who remain unvaccinated “because those are the folks who are the most likely always to be having the severe outcomes and to be getting COVID and spreading COVID.”

Dr. Ngozi Ezike, the director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, said in an interview with WILL-FM that there remain too many unknowns about omicron and that “it’s a little too early to pull the fire alarm.”

Ezike echoed Arwady’s call for vaccinations and continued mask wearing.

The Associated Press and Illinois Public Media contributed to this report.

Katie O’Connell is the morning news editor at WBEZ. Follow @katieoc.