Chicago’s Top Doctor on Chicago’s Rising COVID-19 Cases

As the summer nears its end, Chicago, like cities across the country, is seeing COVID-19 cases rise.

This comes amid fears the flu season could exacerbate the pandemic, and as the Illinois Department of Public Health adds suburban Cook County to a list of 29 other counties at a warning level for the virus.

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“We don’t have a wall around Chicago,” said Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health. “I worry not just about suburban Cook, but many places in Illinois are seeing some surges of COVID.”

She recommends that residents continue to wear masks, practice social distancing and exercise caution even when with close friends and family, which is where COVID-19 has been spreading the most.

In Chicago, cases have been rising with more than 300 reported each day. If that number exceeds 400, the city will implement new restrictions based on data and where the virus is spreading, Arwady said. This could mean limiting gathering sizes.

“Our goal, of course, is not to have to take the major steps backwards into a shelter-in-place,” Arwady said. “We would do it if it came to that point, but the goal is to, hopefully, have people do the right thing and be more focused in our approach depending on what we are seeing.”  

The coronavirus has disproportionately affected Black and Brown communities across Chicago, and the country. Last week, the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office announced that more than 10,000 people have died in the county so far this year, with Black residents accounting for 43% of all deaths. Of the 10,000 fatalities so far this year, more than half have been linked to the coronavirus and roughly 33% of those virus-related deaths have been Black residents.

“We are seeing almost half of our new cases in Latinx Chicagoans, that’s been our biggest number in terms of cases, and we are seeing 43% across this whole time period of deaths being in Black Chicagoans,” Arwady said. “So we’re seeing more deaths in Black Chicagoans and more cases in Latinx Chicagoans.”

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new testing guidance, saying those without symptoms don’t necessarily need to be tested if they have been exposed to the virus. However, Chicago will continue to test anyone exposed to the virus, even if they are asymptomatic.

“The science suggests that we want to do everything we can to control COVID, and in our minds that means continuing to test asymptomatic cases,” Arwady said.

Arwady thinks that, while the rollout was confusing for some, the new guidance was meant to put more responsibility on state and local health departments.

Arwady noted that if someone has been in contact with a person who tests positive for COVID-19, they still need to be quarantined for 14 days, even if they test negative.

Meanwhile, one of President Donald Trump’s top medical advisors, Scott Atlas, is encouraging the White House to embrace “herd immunity,” according to the Washington Post. It’s a controversial strategy that would mean allowing COVID-19 to spread through most of the population to quickly build immunity, while protecting those in nursing homes and other vulnerable populations.

“My concern is that we are a very, very long way from herd immunity here,” Arwady said. “The way we get to herd immunity, the right way to get to herd immunity, is through the vaccine.”

If people are able to get vaccinated, Arwady said, their immune systems will recognize the virus if they are exposed, and will prevent spreading it to others.

“In the absence of a vaccine, embracing herd immunity basically means you’re embracing the recognition that many, many, many more people will get COVID, and that some percentage of those people will be hospitalized and die,” Arwady said. “I don’t think that it is a good approach at this point, given what that would mean in terms of loss of life and frankly serious illness.”

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