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As Chicago-Area Counties Approach ‘High' COVID Levels, Could Mask Mandates Return?

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According to the newest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID cases and hospitalizations are threatening to push several Chicago-area counties, including Cook County, into the highest-level of COVID alert in coming weeks.

That data, released Thursday afternoon, indicates that multiple counties in the Chicago area could potentially soon reach a “high community level” of COVID-19, which would then prompt the CDC to recommend a wide variety of mitigation strategies to help stem the increases in metrics.

Even if certain counties hit that “high community level” threshold, it may not necessarily mean an automatic return to COVID mitigations, including a mask mandate.

Here’s what we know.

What is Considered a ‘High Community Level’ of COVID?

Under CDC guidelines, an area’s “community level” of COVID is determined by three metrics: its new weekly COVID cases per 100,000 residents, its new weekly hospitalizations per 100,000 residents, and its percentage of hospital beds occupied by COVID patients.

Every county within the NBC 5 viewing area is already seeing at least 200 or more new weekly COVID cases per 100,000 residents, which pushes those areas into a “medium community level” of the virus categorization.

In that situation, there are two metric thresholds that can be hit that would push those counties into a “high community level” of COVID. One is if the county is seeing 10 or more weekly hospital admissions per 100,000 residents, or if it is seeing 10% or more of its hospital beds occupied by COVID Patients.

What the Data is Telling Us

The CDC puts together its hospitalization data based not just on the county that a hospital is in, but on what other counties are potentially serviced by that hospital.

As a result, Cook, DuPage, Lake and McHenry counties are all extremely close to ascending to the “high community level” of COVID. Those four counties combined are seeing 9.8 new weekly hospital admissions per 100,000 residents, according to CDC data.

In Kankakee County, that number currently stands at 8.8 new admissions per 100,000 residents, while in DeKalb, Kane and Kendall counties, the number has risen to 8.1 new admissions.

As a result, those eight counties could soon join the eight other Illinois counties that have already hit a “high community level” of the virus.

The center’s director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, adopted a panel’s recommendation Thursday.

Here’s What the CDC Recommends for ‘High Community Level’ Areas

So what does the CDC recommend that individuals do when their area hits that “high community level” threshold?

For starters, the CDC recommends that all residents in those counties, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks while in indoor spaces.

Residents who are immunocompromised, or those who live with residents who are, are encouraged to consider taking additional steps to protect themselves and their loved ones, including “avoiding non-essential indoor activities.”

It is also recommended that those residents talk to their health care providers about additional preventative steps, or to ask if they are eligible for COVID antivirals or monoclonal antibodies in the event of a COVID infection.

As Chicago moves from ‘low’ to ‘medium’ COVID risk level, Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, shared her recommendations regarding indoor masking and dining at restaurants and bars.

So, Would a Return to ‘High Community Level’ Mean a Mask Mandate?

At the state level, it does not appear that a county moving to the “high community level” category would see a mask mandate returned.

While the return of a mandate was not ruled out by Chicago health officials, Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said she's watching a different metric to determine if mandates will return.

"While our hospital numbers remain as good as they are, we'd have to see twice as many Chicagoans getting hospitalized to need to be thinking about mandates," she said.

CDPH said even if the region reaches a higher alert level, "the city of Chicago would not immediately reinstate an indoor mask mandate, because severe outcomes in Chicago remain relatively rare and the burden of COVID-19 in our local hospitals remains low."

While Cook County is seeing a rapid increase in the number of COVID hospitalizations, its percentage of staffed beds currently in use by COVID patients remains well-below the “high” threshold, currently sitting at 3%.

In the city of Chicago itself, the weekly hospitalization rate per 100,000 residents currently sits at 6.3, well-below the level experienced by the rest of the county.

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