• Tracking the variant

Live updates: Omicron Variant in Chicago

Chicago is experiencing a surge of new COVID-19 infections driven by the highly contagious omicron variant.

You can find the latest news here.

Chicago’s vaccine mandate may be encouraging the city’s young people to get their shots

Dr. Allison Arwady
Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, speaks to reporters on March 24, 2020, in Chicago. Tyler LaRiviere / Chicago Sun-Times via AP, Pool

Chicago has seen an uptick in younger people getting vaccinated against COVID-19, and one reason could be the city’s mandate for entering restaurants or entertainment venues.

Public Health Director Dr. Allison Arwady said Tuesday the city is using several measures, including surges, to track whether the vaccine mandate is affecting the vaccination rate. 

She said recently vaccinated people ages 12 to 39 have cited the mandate as a reason they decided to get at least their first dose.

“We’ve been doing some surveys of folks who are getting vaccinated now, and it’s definitely a major reason that especially younger people are giving for being vaccinated,” Arwady said.

On Tuesday she also addressed the Omicron subvariant that has been reported in other countries and was detected for the first time in Illinois. The case was discovered on Jan. 18, according to researchers at Northwestern Medicine.

“I wouldn’t consider it a new variant at this point,” Arwady said. “We’re certainly watching it and monitoring it. But I would not at this point say very clearly that this is going to be a huge, you know, kind of a huge wave.”

The subvariant has been called “stealth Omicron” but Arwady said that’s not a scientific term. She said there are three subvariants of Omicron, but so far there’s no indication the latest subvariant will be more severe than the original.

Meanwhile, new cases of COVID-19 are decreasing in Chicago. As of Tuesday, the daily case average is 1,037 – down 48% from the prior week. Daily averages for hospitalizations, deaths and positivity rates are also lower compared with a week ago.

Some unvaccinated city employees aren’t getting paid and could be fired

Covid-19 vaccine
In this Sept. 21, 2021, file photo, Jackson-Hinds Comprehensive Health Center nurse Maggie Bass, right, injects a COVID-19 vaccine into an arm in Jackson, Miss. Associated Press

Some unvaccinated city of Chicago employees are not being paid and could face termination.

City workers had until Jan. 31 to get vaccinated against COVID-19According to city data, 4,159 of the city’s more than 30,000 employees have not gotten inoculated. It is not clear how many have religious or medical exemptions.

“Employees were fully advised of the deadline and the consequences, and we are taking action,” mayoral spokesman Cesar Rodriguez said in a statement. “This includes placing employees in no-pay status and disciplinary action up to and including termination.”

Nearly 3,000 unvaccinated city employees are in the city’s police department, but may not yet be facing penalties. The vaccination requirement for rank-and-file police officers is on hold after the union that represents them took the city to court over the mandate.

Data show 98.68% of all city workers provided their vaccination status and 85.1% report being vaccinated. A handful of departments report being 100% vaccinated, including the budget office, the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, and the Civilian Office of Police Accountability.

Chicago’s Commissioner of Public Health Dr. Allison Arwady said her department has fewer than five people on “no-pay” status. Data indicate there are eight unvaccinated people in her department.

Some have religious or medical exemptions, Arwady said, and at least one was a matter of missing paperwork.

“My hope is that they will change their minds and get vaccinated, but they are actually unable to do their jobs, particularly at the health department right now,” Arwady said.

COVID cases are dropping in Chicago. What now?

Lurie Children’s hospital registered nurses prepare Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine syringes
Lurie Children's hospital registered nurses prepare Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine syringes Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, in Chicago. With the latest surge of COVID-19 waning, many wonder what will happen next. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press

Chicago residents are starting to see the end of yet another major COVID-19 surge, with cases dropping nearly 50% in the city last week. The recurring question on many minds remains: What happens next?

Health experts around the country are probing that exact question as the highly contagious omicron variant, which resembles the flu in many vaccinated adults, begins to wane.

But what a potential post-omicron world looks like, what will be expected of us and what we expect from government officials to manage future outbreaks are complicated questions, with a lot of variables and unknowns. Will we keep masking, and for how long? Are proof of vaccine mandates the way? Now that most of the city is vaccinated, what do we do next?

COVID-19 is expected to return “sort of consistently here,” said Dr. Allison Arwady, the commissioner of the city’s public health department. “At some level, this is … What is it going to look like to live with COVID?”

But if the city is indeed moving to a new living-with-the-pandemic phase, local leaders say Chicagoans need more information about what to do, aside from getting vaccinated, in order to stay safe and protect others.

Read more: Chicago’s latest COVID-19 surge is subsiding. What happens next?

Chicago’s top doc answers COVID-19 questions

Dr. Allison Arwady, the Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner speaks to the public, as numbers of positive COVID-19 cases increase, at City Hall on January 4, 2022. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago’s COVID-19 cases peaked in the beginning of January and have been going down ever since.

Public Health Commissioner Allison Arwady said Thursday she continues to see improvement in the omicron surge among Chicago residents.

“We’re averaging 1,626 cases a day. That still remains very high, but consistent with what we’ve been seeing. It’s down 49% from where it was a week ago,” Arwady said. “Hospitalizations are also coming down, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is done.”

Arwady added that more Chicago residents are being hospitalized with COVID-19 now than at any point since May 2020.

In Chicago, the latest daily average of hospitalizations is 148, which is mostly unvaccinated individuals.

“We are averaging 21 deaths a day, still high,” Arwady said. “When this was in very good control last summer we were seeing three deaths a day. Three deaths a day is 1,000 deaths a year from COVID. So this remains a really dangerous illness.”

Arwady said unvaccinated Chicagoans are five times more likely to be hospitalized than unvaccinated residents.

CPS has no immediate plans to reverse change in COVID-19 reporting

students walk in a hallway
Chicago Public Schools is being criticized for changing how it reports COVID-19 cases in schools and not disclosing the change.

Chicago Public Schools on Monday said it is not immediately backing away from a decision to only publicly share the number of COVID-19 cases at individual schools that were confirmed by contact tracers. This reporting change, made over winter break, is being sharply criticized for giving parents a less accurate and timely picture of what is happening in their children’s schools.

Until winter break, the district reported all cases on its COVID-19 web tracker, including students who tested positive in the district’s COVID surveillance program and those who self-reported. The school district on Monday said it was evaluating whether to go back to posting all reported cases and expects to have a timeline for making that decision soon.

CPS said on Monday that neither CPS CEO Pedro Martinez nor Dr. Allison Arwady, who runs the city’s public health department, were involved in making the call to change how cases were reported at the school level. The school district also never “formally” told the Chicago Department of Public Health it was making the change, though CPS’ chief health officer reports to CPDH as well as to CPS.

Instead, the decision was made solely by a CPS “cross functional team,” including people from Informational Technology and from the Office of Student Health and Wellness. When asked why city public health officials were not consulted, the school district said, “This was a decision about how we choose to share school-level data on the CPS website.”

Gov. JB Pritzker vetoes paid COVID-19 leave for school staff

Many Illinois teachers have had to use sick days for absences related to COVID-19. Gov. JB Pritzker vetoed a bill that would have required school districts to give paid time off for COVID-related absences, but plans to push similar legislation just for vaccinated staff. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker vetoed a bill Monday that would have required public school districts and colleges to provide paid leave for workers who take days off related to COVID-19. But the plan isn’t dead.

Pritzker came to an agreement with the state’s teachers union and said he intends to advance a compromise replacement bill that focuses on vaccinated staff. Under the governor’s proposal, only fully vaccinated school employees will qualify for paid leave and restoration of sick days.

In a statement, the governor acknowledged workers who are “doing their part” by becoming fully vaccinated.

“They deserve to be able to take the time they need to respond to the ongoing devastating impacts the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have on them and their families,” Pritzker said.

Read more: Vaccinated school staff may still get paid leave after Gov. JB Pritzker vetoes original bill

New data show vaccination rates by school

CPS student Jazlyn Salgado gets the COVID-19 vaccine
CPS student Jazlyn Salgado got the COVID-19 vaccine at Michele Clark High School, a Chicago public school, on August 12, 2021. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

New vaccination data, obtained through a public records request, is the first to capture school-level vaccination rates in elementary schools. Five- to 11-year-olds only became eligible for vaccinations in early November. The state data, which is provided to Chicago Public Schools twice a month and is matched with CPS enrollment information, captures vaccinations through Jan. 18.

Data highlights include: 

  • About 23% of elementary school students in CPS are fully vaccinated. Another 10% of students have had a single shot.

  • Meanwhile, vaccination rates among Chicago public high school students have stayed virtually the same over the past few months. Currently, about 53% are fully vaccinated. Another 5% of students have received one shot. As of Dec. 10, about 51% of high school students were fully vaccinated, according to an analysis by Chalkbeat Chicago.

  • At elementary schools with majority Asian, white or diverse student bodies, an average of 44% of students are fully vaccinated. At majority Latino elementary schools, it is 24% and at majority Black elementary schools, it is 11%.

  • At high schools with majority Asian, white or diverse student bodies, an average of 75% of students are fully vaccinated. At majority Latino schools, it’s 61%. At majority Black schools the vaccination rate is 35%.

Read more: One in four CPS elementary students is vaccinated, with rates varying widely by school

CPS failed to disclose a switch in its COVID-19 reporting

Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez at a news conference
Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez at a news conference on January 4, 2022. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago Public Schools changed the way it reports COVID-19 cases at individual schools, but did not disclose it, resulting in parents getting an undercount of positive cases in the school their child attends.

The change during winter break was implemented at the time the omicron surge was taking hold, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the school district were trying to convince parents it was safe to send their children back to school. CPS insists the change was not meant to mislead.

On its COVID tracker web page, CPS was reporting data on cases district-wide and school-by-school that, according to the district, still needed to be confirmed. But on Dec. 20, in the winter break, CPS began reporting only closed cases — those that have been verified by a contact tracing team — at the school level.

Though CPS continued to include the larger number of open and closed cases in the district total, parents no longer were seeing the additional open cases at their individual school. This painted an imprecise picture for families.

Read more: Chicago Public Schools failed to notify families about a significant change in its COVID-19 reporting

Chicago’s sewage is helping the city track COVID-19

Sutichak / Adobe Stock

Chicago health officials are now tracking the spread of COVID-19 infections through a non-traditional source: the city’s poop. The city recently joined statewide and national efforts to monitor our sewage for levels of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Since people with COVID-19 actually shed the virus in their poop, health officials now have another tool to help keep tabs on infections.

This week the Chicago Department of Public Health released its most recent wastewater COVID-19 surveillance report based on samples collected last December from three main water treatment plants and sewer sites they’re targeting in seven neighborhood areas spread throughout the city.

The results aren’t necessarily surprising. The wastewater data confirmed that during the last two weeks of December, COVID-19 infections increased across all the seven neighborhood zones where samples were collected. The data also showed an increase in the samples collected from all three treatment plants.

Read more: Every time you poop, you’re helping Chicago health officials track COVID

Illinois begins focusing more on COVID-19 hospitalization data as cases decline

John O’Connor File / AP Photo

Illinois Governor JB Pritzker is cautiously optimistic the Omicron wave of the pandemic has peaked.

Both hospitalizations and the number of people requiring intensive care have fallen daily over the last week.

“In the first two weeks of 2022, 14,000 new people have gotten their first vaccine dose every single day,” Pritzker said at a news conference. “That’s around 100,000 newly vaccinated people, about the population of Peoria, every week.”

Pritzker said he thinks some people who were adamantly against the vaccine are starting to change their minds.

The state is focusing more on hospitalization data and less on case numbers, in part, due to the increasing prevalence of at-home tests.

Such tests are part of the state’s arsenal in dealing with the next variant.

Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, also talked about genomic sequencing that will help identify the next variant, plus an infrastructure that makes vaccines and boosters free and easily available.

She said the state has systems in place to prepare for the next variant, but ultimately, it’s up to individuals.

“People have to get themselves ready just as they would for any natural disaster and that preparation involves getting boosted,” Ezike said. “You know, people who got one dose just to get the one dose, like, you are not fully prepared for the next variant.”

There were nearly 7,400 people across Illinois hospitalized with COVID on Jan. 12.

On Jan. 19, that number was just over 6,500.