Chicagoans need to mask up indoors and get their COVID-19 booster shots as most of the larger metro area is now considered a high threat for the spread of the virus, a top health official said Thursday.
Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady stopped short of announcing mandates for masks or proof of vaccination to enter public spaces but said on Thursday that such measures could be reinstated if cases and hospitalizations continue to climb.
Her comments came just hours before U.S. health officials declared Cook County as well as DuPage, Lake, McHenry and Will counties have moved to high risk from a previous classification of medium risk. Kane is the only collar county that remains at medium risk, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The classification points to a threat of additional outbreaks and risks of hospitals being overwhelmed. Chicago is not at that point and the designation simply means it’s a potential threat. Taking protective steps now can reduce the risk of more drastic public measures later, Arwady said at a news conference.
“As we move into high, put that mask on,” Arwady said. “Even while there isn’t a mandate in place, we ask everybody for this short-term time period while we’re in high put that mask on, especially if you’re in an indoor crowded setting.”
COVID-19 cases have been on the rise for weeks but are nowhere near peaks seen at the beginning of the year during the surge of the Omicron variant.
Chicago is averaging almost 1,100 COVID-19 cases, 28 hospitalizations and less than one death a day. About 69% of Chicagoans are fully vaccinated, while almost a quarter of residents haven’t received a single shot.
Hospitalizations are up slightly while the average death rate is the lowest it has been throughout the pandemic, which is encouraging, Arwady said.
Just over 40% of Chicagoans who are eligible for COVID-19 boosters have received the additional shots, which is problematic, Arwady said, because the effectiveness of the vaccines wanes over time.
“If you got vaccinated for COVID-19 in 2021 or 2020 but you haven’t gotten a booster yet, meaning you have only had two shots, it is time. You are technically overdue,” she said.
Anyone over the age of 5 should get boosted, she said. People over 50 or over 12 and have compromised immune systems are eligible for a second booster.
Boosters provide added protection from hospitalizations and death, especially for those most at risk such as the elderly and those with health conditions.
“The booster shot is crucial,” said Dr. Ali Khan, executive medical director for Oak Street Health in Chicago.
Khan tells his patients to get boosted, know the risks of being in crowded places and always carry a mask in case one is needed.
“We can stay away from needing mask mandates,” Khan said, echoing Arwady’s comments on preventive measures that reduce the virus’ spread.
In recent weeks, Arwady has been recommending Chicagoans wear masks in public indoor places and when on public transportation, though no mandates have been in place since Gov. J.B. Pritzker lifted the statewide masking requirement in late February.
She said she “would not hesitate” to put a mask requirement back in place if COVID cases grew large enough to put pressure on hospitals.
Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.