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Chicago Has ‘Formally Passed' Omicron Peak, City's Top Doc Announces

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Chicago has officially reached the peak of the omicron COVID variant, the city's top doctor announced Wednesday, though she noted the city is "a long way from being out of the woods."

"I am very, very pleased to say that we have formally passed the omicron peak here in the city of Chicago," Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said during a COVID-19 update.

Arwady said the city is currently seeing decreases in daily case averages, test positivity rates and hospitalizations.

As of Wednesday, the city was averaging 2,903 cases per day, a drop from 5,399 last week. The peak number of daily cases reported in January was 8,553 cases.

The city's test positivity rate was also down to 12.6% Wednesday, after peaking on Jan. 1 at 19.6%.

"We're confident seeing that big decrease both in cases and then in positivity, that this is not just an artifact of testing. This is in fact, a true peak," Arwady said.

While hospitalizations are seeing early signs of decline, ICU capacity is plateauing, Arwady said.

"It does remain higher though than in any previous month. Of the pandemic. Our hospitals are still stretched. Make no doubt about that," Arwady said. "And the most important thing is getting vaccinated because that is the key thing for helping stay out of the hospital."

Arwady said while the "turnaround" is encouraging, the city is still seeing heightened transmission.

"It's really important over these next few weeks and months that we continue to work hard on getting folks vaccinated, getting folks tested, continuing to wear masks, because there's a long way to come down," she said. "However, I'm really pleased to have seen this turnaround."

Arwady said the surge has been largely sparked by omicron cases, which have "out competed" the delta variant.

As of Wednesday, Arwady said just 0.7% of the city's cases were believed to be caused by the delta variant.

"You can see 99.3% is the estimate of all of the COVID cases are the omicron variant and just 0.7% are delta and nothing else is showing up at this point," she said.

That could be a positive sign, she added.

"When you look at this overall... cases dramatically higher than anything we had seen previously, but many of these cases have been mild," Arwady said. "Many of these cases have been breakthrough people who were previously vaccinated and had a case. Many of these cases have been reinfections in people who previously had COVID. So the case numbers breaking all records - and that is true across the country - hospitalizations in comparison, you can see we have also had more people hospitalized with COVID in this surge than we have had in any prior surge, but in terms of the comparison, you see that's more similar to what we had seen in the first spike, for example. And then finally deaths... I do expect will continue to rise for some time. But you can see that deaths in comparison to what we were seeing at the beginning are much lower."

Last week, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said most reported COVID deaths in the U.S. were likely still from the delta variant.

Speaking at the White House COVID-19 Response Team briefing Wednesday, Walensky said she expects most of the recent spike in fatalities are lagging deaths from the delta variant wave.

The seven-day rolling average for daily new COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. has been trending upward since mid-November, reaching nearly 1,700 on Jan. 17 — still below the peak of 3,300 in January 2021.

Experts warn, however, that with deaths often lagging behind infections, the true impact of omicron remains uncertain.

Despite similar peaking trends being seen in other parts of the country, Arwady cautioned the "Midwest is still very much surging."

"[Wisconsin] has seen no signs of plateauing and has one of the very highest case counts in the country right now and very much on the way up," she said. "And then regionally, while Illinois case rates are on the decline, our surrounding states are generally continuing to rise- Minnesota, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, all with higher COVID rates right now than Illinois, and largely on the way up with Wisconsin really standing out as having being in a major surge."

Every U.S. state and territory remains on the city's travel advisory for the third straight week.

NBC Chicago/Associated Press
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