‘The Sky Is Not Falling, At This Point’: City Officials Brace for Omicron COVID-19 Variant

(WTTW News)(WTTW News)

Chicagoans who are not yet vaccinated against COVID-19 are at highest risk of getting seriously ill from the omicron variant of COVID-19, Chicago’s top doctor said Tuesday.

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While the omicron variant of COVID-19 has yet to be discovered in the United States, Dr. Allison Arwady, the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, said she expected it would be detected shortly — and that it would likely overwhelm the delta variant of COVID-19, which fueled a surge of cases in Chicago this summer and fall.

However, Arwady urged Chicagoans to wait for more data from scientists studying whether the omicron variant of COVID-19 is more transmissible than other variants or makes people sicker. It is also not yet clear whether vaccines and other treatments will be effective against the omicron variant of COVID-19, Arwady said.

“The sky is not falling, at this point,” Arwady said Tuesday during an online question-and-answer session that focused on the omicron variant.

Data from Chicago health officials show that confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been rising in Chicago since Oct. 25, once the weather turned colder, sending people indoors. The development of the omicron variant could accelerate that increase, especially as Chicagoans gather for holiday celebrations, Arwady said.

However, Chicagoans who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and have gotten a vaccine booster dose and continue to wear a mask indoors should not be seriously concerned, Arwady said.

As Chicago and Illinois officials brace for the impact of the omicron variant of COVID-19, the highest rates of confirmed cases of COVID-19 are in three neighboring states: Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, according to Chicago Department of Public Health data.

Chicago officials removed California, North Carolina and Guam from the city’s COVID-19 travel advisory on Tuesday.

In all, the advisory continues to cover 38 states, Arwady said.

Unvaccinated visitors to Chicago from those states are urged to quarantine for 10 days or record a negative test for the coronavirus within 72 hours of their arrival, officials said.

In addition, unvaccinated travelers should get tested three to five days before they leave on their trip as well as three to five days after they return, according to new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Even if they test negative, they should self-quarantine for seven days. Those who don’t take a test should quarantine for 10 days after travel, according to the new guidance.

Unvaccinated travelers should avoid being around people who are at increased risk for severe illness for 14 days, even with a negative test, according to the new guidance.

The city’s travel order, first implemented in July 2020, did not include any states as of June 1 as vaccination efforts tamped down cases and spurred reopenings across the United States. On June 29, officials announced the order would become an advisory as COVID-19 cases remained low across the nation. The delta variant stopped that progress.

States and territories that average more than 15 cases of COVID-19 per day per 100,000 residents are covered by the travel advisory, Chicago officials said.

Chicago is averaging 18.2 new cases per day per 100,000 residents. Illinois is averaging 23.7 cases per day, according to data from the Chicago Department of Public Health. The national case rate is 21.7, officials said.

The city’s test positivity rate is 3.5%, up from 3% a week ago.

No one was cited for violating the travel order, which could have triggered fines of $100 to $500 per day for a maximum fine of $7,000, according to the mayor’s office. 

City officials said the advisory is designed to be part of a COVID-19 education campaign.

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

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