As Chicago and Illinois' COVID-19 metrics plummet from their all-time peaks just weeks ago, the doctor leading America's war against the virus sees signs for hope.
"Illinois is actually doing well," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview Friday. "The upper northeast and the Midwest, represented by Chicago and Illinois, are doing better in general than the rest of the country."
Illinois health officials on Friday reported 60,389 new COVID cases in the past week - less than half the number tallied in the week before. The state reported 44,089 cases on Jan. 6 alone, the highest one-day total of the entire pandemic thus far. On Friday, just one month later, Illinois reported 10,070 new COVID cases, less than a fourth of that earlier peak.
To many, it feels like the state may be coming out of the worst of the pandemic.
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"To the Illinoisans who feel that way, you are correct - but also, Illinois has been through multiple surges, as we all have," Fauci said.
Even as Fauci cautioned against letting down our collective guard, he did offer hope for brighter days ahead. First on vaccinations, as Illinois boasts a better vaccination rate than most of the country: 70.7% of the state's residents over the age of 5 are fully vaccinated, while 80.4% have at least one dose, according to the latest figures.
With about 64% of the entire U.S. population fully vaccinated, Fauci said Illinois' vaccination rate is "as good or better" than the rest of the nation, adding, "no doubt about that."
On the mask requirement in Illinois schools - at the center of a protracted legal battle - Fauci said the statewide mandate, combined with vaccinations, are part of a layered approach that’s keeping schools open.
"You provide a safe environment for children by surrounding them with people who themselves are protected, number one. Number two, vaccinate as many of the children as you can," Fauci said. "Next you provide an environment in schools hopefully with things like good ventilation but also masking. When you put all of those things together, the school system has been really quite safe for children, with few exceptions."
"So before we start talking about pulling back on them, let's get the dynamic of the virus in the community low enough so that we can feel safe in pulling back on the requirement for children to wear masks," he added.
On Chicago's requirement to show proof of vaccination to enter public places like restaurants and gyms, Fauci said he supports it. But when asked about Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady publicly contemplating lifting that policy, he deferred to her, calling her "a good friend."
"She has extraordinarily good judgment - and I talk to her very frequently - and if she makes that decision I have total confidence that that’s the right decision," Fauci said.
Overall, the Illinois numbers are encouraging, Fauci said – but he can't give a ballpark of when he believes mitigations can be lifted.
"Bottom line, you’re doing well but you’ve got to keep it up. I think one of the things we have to be careful of is that we don’t get overconfident and just because things are turning around, we lift up our guard a little bit too soon," he said.
"You're going in the right direction," Fauci added. "My plea to the people of Illinois is: hang in there. This is going to end. It will get better. We need everyone's cooperation to do that and we will get back to the normality that we all crave."