What Does Omicron Peak Mean for Vaccine Mandate, COVID Restrictions?

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As Chicago sees early signs of decline from the omicron surge, with officials in both the city and Illinois saying a peak has been reached, what will that mean for vaccine mandates and other COVID restrictions in the city?

Chicago's top doctor said the city will be lifting restrictions "at some point," but exactly when remains unclear and with metrics still heightened, it likely won't be soon.

"When we get back down into that sort of moderate-low risk, we will not have the vaccination requirements in place because the vaccination requirement is in place in high risk settings and that setting is especially high risk when the numbers are high, etc., etc.," Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said during a Facebook Live Thursday. "However, the timing of that? I don't know yet."

Arwady said the city is monitoring both case rates and hospitalizations, among other metrics, as it looks to determine when restrictions could be lifted, but that moment could still be months away.

"I think it's more of as we move into spring and sort of see things kind of stabilize, know that our hospitals are back in good shape," she said. "You know, there's a number of things that we're following here."

Arwady revealed Wednesday that the city had "formally passed" the peak of the omicron variant, though she noted the city is "a long way from being out of the woods."

She highlighted early decreases in daily case averages, test positivity rates and hospitalizations, which indicates "a true peak," but said the city remains under high transmission risk.

As of Wednesday, Chicago 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%.

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

"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."

Gov. J.B. Pritzker echoed her cautious optimism Wednesday after announcing that Illinois hospitalizations had apparently peaked one week ago.

“I want to be clear, I am cautiously optimistic, but there are an awful lot of people battling for their lives in hospitals across Illinois,” Pritzker said.

Both Pritzker and Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, said that it is still far too early to roll back various COVID restrictions, including mask mandates and the city of Chicago’s vaccine mandate, and said they will continue to monitor data to determine when it will be safe to do so.

Despite similar peaking trends being seen in other parts of the country, Arwady also 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.

Health officials say the omicron variant is likely not the last COVID variant that will emerge, but what exactly the coronavirus pandemic will bring in the months ahead remains unclear.

"No we are not out of the woods and I encourage people, you know, to take this with hope in terms of yes, things are not getting worse right now, thankfully, but there's a long way to go until they are in a place that they are better and that we can be confident that our hospitals have space for everybody who needs care, especially with flu season and all the rest of this," Arwady said.

NBC Chicago/Associated Press
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