Chicago considers vax requirements for public spaces as omicron emerges

COVID-19 Vaccine
A health worker administers a dose of a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine during a vaccination clinic at the Norristown Public Health Center in Norristown, Pa., on Dec. 7, 2021. Matt Rourke / AP Photo
COVID-19 Vaccine
A health worker administers a dose of a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine during a vaccination clinic at the Norristown Public Health Center in Norristown, Pa., on Dec. 7, 2021. Matt Rourke / AP Photo

Chicago considers vax requirements for public spaces as omicron emerges

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A Chicago resident is the first person in Illinois to test positive for the omicron variant, health officials said. The news comes after a recent surge in COVID-19 cases prompted the city’s top doctor to hint at vaccine requirements.

The Illinois Department of Public Health and the Chicago Department of Public Health said Tuesday night the Chicago resident had contact with someone with a confirmed omicron case who was visiting the city from another state.

The Chicago resident, who had been fully vaccinated and also had received a booster dose, did not require hospitalization and “is improving and has been self-isolating since their symptoms began,” the health agencies said in a news release. Officials said contact tracing is underway.

COVID-19 cases continue to climb following the Thanksgiving holiday. Chicago is averaging 903 new cases a day as of Wednesday, up 73% from the week before.

The Monday after Thanksgiving, the city had more than 1,400 cases diagnosed. Dr. Allison Arwady, Chicago’s public health commissioner, said that’s the most new cases in the city since January 2021, when the vaccine was not yet widely available.

The rise in new cases pushed Chicago into the very high transmission category.

However, unlike previous surges, Chicago is not seeing a drastic increase in hospitalizations.

“With [the] vaccine, we have managed to see some separation between the very high case rate and the hospitalization rates,” Arwady said.

During her Tuesday question-and-answer session, Arwady also said the city may consider additional vaccination requirements for more activities and public spaces as cases climb.

“I’m certainly more interested in that than I am in needing to, you know, do some of the major shutdowns,” Arwady said.

What do we know about the omicron variant?

U.S. health officials said Sunday that while the omicron variant of the coronavirus is rapidly spreading throughout the country, early indications suggest it may be less dangerous than delta, which continues to drive a surge of hospitalizations.

President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told CNN’s “State of the Union” that scientists need more information before drawing conclusions about omicron’s severity.

Reports from South Africa, where it emerged and is becoming the dominant strain, suggest that hospitalization rates have not increased alarmingly.

“Thus far, it does not look like there’s a great degree of severity to it,” Fauci said. “But we have really got to be careful before we make any determinations that it is less severe or it really doesn’t cause any severe illness, comparable to delta.”

It will take a few weeks to learn key aspects about this latest variant, including whether it’s more contagious, causes more severe illness or evades immunity — and if so, how by much.

Cases of the omicron variant have been reported in about one-third of U.S. states. However, the delta variant remains the leading variant in Illinois and Chicago.

Public health officials are tracking the omicron variant by doubling the number of samples being sent to Rush University Medical Center for genetic testing and increasing wastewater testing to look for new outbreaks.

What do I need to do to remain safe?

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and health officials urged Chicago and Illinois residents to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and get their booster shot.

“As long as the virus continues to circulate, it has the potential to mutate into new variants. Vaccination can help stop circulation, but we need more people to get vaccinated,” said Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike in a statement.

Arwady said she expects that vaccinations will “continue to have some protection, especially against the severe outcomes.” She added much remains unknown, including whether an omicron-specific booster will be needed.

Non-vaccine mitigation factors such as masking when indoors, avoiding crowds and washing your hands are important steps as well.

With the holidays approaching, Arwady said it’s important to be cautious when traveling. There are currently 40 states on Chicago’s travel advisory, including Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, which have some of the highest daily case rates in the country.

Unvaccinated travelers need to be tested for COVID before and after travel. They should also quarantine upon return to Chicago.

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