As COVID-19 Cases Rise 23% in a Week, Chicago’s Top Doctor Says She is ‘Really Worried’

(WTTW News)(WTTW News)

Confirmed cases of the coronavirus have risen 23% in Chicago during the past seven days, prompting Chicago’s top health official to say Tuesday she is “really worried” the city could be on the cusp of another surge of the pandemic.

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An average of 350 Chicagoans have been diagnosed each day with the coronavirus during the past week, a 23% increase from the previous week, according to Chicago Department of Public Health data.

Dr. Allison Arwady, the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, said in an online question-and-answer session that she is “really worried about the next four to eight weeks” since COVID-19 vaccines are not yet widely available in Chicago.

“I am very concerned about the short term,” Arwady said.

During the past 14 days, the city has recorded a 30% increase in confirmed cases, Arwady said during a news conference to announce changes to the city's COVID-19 travel order.

Just 11% of all Chicagoans have been fully vaccinated, Arwady said.

Approximately 84% of Chicagoans who have an underlying health condition or are an essential employee will be eligible for the vaccine starting Monday, Arwady said.

Chicago is in an "inbetween moment" when people can see the end of the pandemic and want to restart their normal lives but not enough people have been vaccinated to make that safe.

"Keep your guard up against COVID-19," Arwady said. "It is too early for us to think COVID-19 is over."

The last time the city saw similar increases in confirmed cases of the coronavirus was the beginning of October, weeks before a second surge of the pandemic swept Chicago before peaking in mid-November.

The current increase in cases is steepest among 18- to 40-year-olds, similar to increases among young adults that started the second surge of the pandemic in October, Arwady said.

The increase is concentrated downtown, on the Far Northwest Side and on the Southwest Side, Arwady said. Most outbreaks have been traced to social events, including sports leagues at the high school, college and adult level, before adding that the increase was "multifactoral."

It is the “same pattern” as the city saw during the fall, Arwady said.

Since the pandemic began, Arwady has said that the average of confirmed cases of the coronavirus during a seven-day period was the single most important metric to follow to gauge the severity of the pandemic.

Despite the rising number of COVID-19 cases, Chicago’s test positivity rate remains less than 5%, which indicates that the spread of the coronavirus is being controlled. The rate is calculated by comparing the number of positive tests for the coronavirus with the total number of tests conducted within a 24-hour period.

However, there have been more than five consecutive days that recorded a 10% increase since last week, according to city data

In addition, while Chicago hospitals have ample capacity in hospital intensive care units, the number of emergency room visits by people experiencing symptoms that could be COVID-19 has risen by 45% in the past 14 days, according to city data.

The rise in cases and emergency room visits could thwart efforts by Mayor Lori Lightfoot to allow more businesses to reopen — including the city’s Major League Baseball ballparks — and others to serve more customers.

The increase comes after Lightfoot allowed indoor dining and drinking at bars and restaurants to operate at 50% of their normal capacity, or no more than 50 people, on March 2. 

In addition, Chicago Public Schools reopened for in-person learning for students in kindergarten through eighth grade on March 8.

Cases of COVID-19 can take up to 14 days to develop, and schools reopened for the first time in nearly a year 15 days ago.

Under the district’s agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union, in-person learning would be suspended for 14 days if the city’s COVID-19 test positivity rate, based on a seven-day rolling average, increases for seven consecutive days, if the rate for each of the seven consecutive days is at least 15% higher than the rate one week prior and if the rate on the seventh day is 10% or greater.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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