Rising Chicago COVID Metrics Reminiscent of Last Fall Surge, Doc Says

Dr. Allison Arwady said the current trends in city metrics, many of which have risen in recent weeks, are similar to the trends seen ahead of last fall's surge

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Illinois and Chicago health officials have expressed concern over a recent increase in coronavirus metrics that could signal another potential spike in the city and state.

Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said the current trends in city metrics, many of which have risen in recent weeks particularly in young adult populations, are similar to the trends seen ahead of the fall surge that led to coronavirus mitigations across the city and state.

"Unfortunately, these sorts of increases are just what we were seeing in October as we were starting to see the beginnings of what became our huge surge," Arwady said during a coronavirus update Tuesday. "It was really the same case rates and younger adults that started this."

The city's positivity rate sat at 3.2% Tuesday, remaining in the low-risk category, but marking an increase from a recent low of 2.7%, Arwady said.

"Seeing that go up about a half a percentage point over the last, you know, week and a half to two weeks is not progress," she said during an earlier Facebook Live Tuesday.

Even more concerning, she said, is that case counts in the city are also starting to rise, with a current average of 350 cases per day, compared to 285 one week earlier.

"Sometimes people ask, isn't it just that you're doing more testing? No, because if it were just testing, we would see testing up 23% and cases up 23%. This is a true increase," Arwady said.

Arwady said that while the current case level remains in a moderate risk category, the rate of increase actually puts the city under a higher risk.

"At this point, the cases are in a high-risk state because of the increase. Our positivity does remain in the lower-risk state, but heading the wrong way and then our emergency department visits, which had been in a lower-risk state are also back in a moderate-risk state because, consistent with the increase in cases, we've also seen some increase in people present with COVID-like illness to the emergency department," she said. "Our ICU numbers and our hospital numbers at this point do continue to look good. But I will tell you, we are worried about this."

The city's top doctor had planned on announcing some new reopenings Tuesday, but said she decided against it as numbers in Chicago start to shift.

"I was very much hoping today to be able to do some further reopening," Arwady said. "In the setting of what these numbers look like we're just keeping a close eye. We've got to come back down to moderate risk in all of our indicators and, you know, the state's in agreement about that too, that these increases we're seeing are not just in Chicago. They're actually worse in suburban Cook and the northeast, you know, the state overall. Not an emergency yet, but these are... this is why we monitor these things and when we see signs of concern like this, it's a moment to watch and see what happens."

Her comments were echoed in part by Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike, who said Tuesday that the state is "seeing some concerning plateaus and even increases in hospitalizations and cases."

“Even as we’re getting more and more vaccine doses, we cannot let our guard down, especially with these virulent new strains circulating,” Ezike said in a statement. “We’ve come so far and are so close to a more normal time, but we’re already seeing some concerning plateaus and even increases in hospitalizations and cases. We’re not out of the woods yet so continue to wear your masks, avoid large crowds, and keep six feet of distance.”

Health officials in Illinois on Tuesday reported 1,832 new coronavirus cases and 13 additional deaths, along with more than 70,000 vaccinations in the past 24 hours.

Arwady noted that emerging variants of the coronavirus, believed to be more contagious, are still being reported across the city.

Most recently, on March 5, the Chicago Department of Public Health reported the city's first case of the Brazilian COVID-19 variant, which also marked the first such case in Illinois, according to health officials.

Illinois reported its first case of the variant first discovered in South Africa on Feb. 11, while the U.K. strain was initially reported in Chicago on Jan. 15.

"We're seeing COVID variants spread in Chicago, and we are not testing every person who gets COVID for those variants, but we absolutely are seeing again that B.117 variant that first emerged in the U.K., that they're seeing a lot of in Michigan," she said. "We are also seeing more cases of it here in Chicago and we have seen some spread. And so, reminding people, you know, we're seeing cases from across the city, it doesn't matter where you live in Chicago, we continue to see cases emerging from every portion of Chicago, we continue to see people being hospitalized."

Michigan, health officials added, now has the third-highest number of COVID cases in the U.S. as a recent rise has seen cases spike by 112% in the last two weeks, leading to a 52% increase in hospitalizations. Numbers that mirror those seen in late-December, officials said.

"It's surprising because they had been for a month one of the best states in terms of COVID control across the whole Midwest," Arwady said. "I will also note they have detected quite a lot of cases of that B.117 variant, the one that originally emerged in the U.K. They have good surveillance and a good testing for it, but regardless, there are concerns that some more variant in in Michigan is driving some more potentially of the cases there."

Arwady said that while the city continues to make progress in vaccinating residents, she's particularly concerned about the short-term impacts of a surge, but remains optimistic for longer-term projections.

"I remain really confident that this summer, assuming we continue to see really good vaccine demand and really good uptake as vaccine supply increases, we'll be in good shape this summer, but I am really worried about this next sort of four to eight weeks," she said.

While it remains unclear if the rising metrics will in fact mark the start of a third surge in the city, Arwady said residents should not let their guards down.

 "I don't know fully what's going to happen here," Arwady said. "I do know that we are pushing vaccine absolutely as quickly as we can, ramping up our monitoring for the variants we are seeing...and continuing to ask people to do what has gotten us this far. If we see a big increase in cases not accompanied by an increase in hospitalizations or deaths I don't worry about that as much. But if we start to see it impacting in serious ways, you know, and then the big question is what does this mean for reopening?"

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