Chicago could soon reach a high alert level for COVID, but that doesn't necessarily mean mask mandates will return right away, the city's top doctor said Tuesday.
While masks are "strongly recommended" across the city with cases spiking, 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."
Chicago's positivity rate has soared above 6% in recent weeks, with data showing a current average of 1,172 new daily cases over the last seven days. That number is up from the 922 reported the previous week.
Hospitalizations, however, are averaging 18 a day, up just 2% from the week before.
As of Monday, Chicago hospitals combined reported fewer than 200 hospitalized patients with COVID-19, only 18 of which were in intensive care.
While no Illinois counties are at the “high community level” of COVID, there are 14 that are currently at a “medium community level” of the virus. That includes Cook County, as well as seven other Chicago-area counties, according to CDC data.
Evanston, a northern suburb just outside of Chicago, has said it is currently at a "high" community level.
Arwady said Chicago could reach a similar level "in the next few weeks."
"While severe outcomes from COVID-19, including hospitalizations and deaths, continue to remain at or near all-time pandemic lows in the city of Chicago, Cook County (including Chicago) could move into the High Level soon based on case counts and regional hospital impact," CDPH said in a release Tuesday.
The rise in COVID cases could signify that the United States is in a "fifth wave" of COVID cases, according to some health experts.
For the first time in more than three months, Illinois is averaging more than 6,000 new probable and confirmed COVID-19 cases per day, with hospitalizations also beginning to climb across the state.
In the last seven days, the state’s daily average of new COVID cases has gone up by 17.7%, according to IDPH officials. In the last month, cases have increased by 174%.
A new subvariant of omicron is making up an increasing proportion of the COVID cases in the United States, according to the latest estimates from the CDC.
According to that data, the majority of cases in the United States are still made up by the BA.2 subvariant of omicron, but that number has dropped to 50.9% this week.
The BA.2.12.1 variant, which has been responsible for a large surge in cases, especially in the northeast, is now up to 47.5% of COVID cases this week across the U.S., and it's at 44.7% in the Midwest.
Arwady noted things might get worse before they get better.
"I do think we need to get to a point where this latest increase, which is more contagious, is the dominant one," she said. "So that's probably going to take another couple of weeks if I had to take a guess. And then the question is, can we have a break here in terms of new variants and new sub variants, but the great news is that vaccines are working wonderfully in terms of keeping folks out of the hospital."
For now, the city continues to recommend masking indoors, despite the lack of a mandate.
"While masks are not currently mandated indoors in the city of Chicago, CDPH strongly recommends individuals wear a mask in indoor public settings and continue with other COVID-19 mitigations: ensure everyone is up to date with vaccines and boosters; get tested if experiencing COVID-like symptoms; continue to follow quarantine and isolation guidelines; and stay home if you are sick," CDPH said in its release. "As the weather continues to warm up, CDPH also advises Chicago residents to gather outdoors, when possible, to decrease the risk of COVID-19 transmission."