Much of the recent spread of the coronavirus in Chicago has been through social gatherings, the city's top health official said Tuesday, sharing anecdotes of residents who tested positive for COVID-19 after events like birthday parties or dinners with "trusted" family members and friends.
"Where we are seeing COVID spread in Chicago is in households and in social gatherings," Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said at a news conference to announce updates to the city's emergency order requiring anyone entering the city from 22 other states to quarantine for 14 days.
Arwady noted that early on in the pandemic, transmission was driven largely by congregate settings like long-term care facilities, factory-style workplaces and other areas that have since implemented new protocols and regulations to slow the spread of the virus.
But as those outbreaks have slowed, the virus has spread more rapidly in social settings that the city is unable to regulate, she said, sharing stories of some Chicago residents who tested positive after various outings with family and friends over the past week as examples.
A man in his 30s "went to a gathering at his friend's house, developed symptoms and found out his friend was positive," Arwady said, calling the case "not a very exciting story, but one that we are hearing over and over and over and over again."
A Chicago woman in her 40s went to her mom's birthday party with her son, daughter, mother, sister and niece - all of whom tested positive for COVID-19 after the event, Arwady said. Another woman in her 40s attended a birthday party with about 20 people at a friend's home and came into contact with someone who tested positive, according to Arwady, who then read a quote from the report on the case.
"'They were lax on social distancing because they all trusted each other,'" Arwady said the woman told contact tracers. "This is very common, what we're hearing."
One person went by a neighbor's house in their same subdivision and chatted for about 20 minutes, not sitting inside the house but "in fairly close contact" and without masks, according to Arwady, who said the host tested positive and informed the neighbor who had stopped by. That neighbor later tested positive, along with their husband.
A man in his 20s went to his aunt's house with members of his extended family, several of whom later tested positive, officials said. A woman in her 40s went out with a group of friends to dinner and drinks then later found out one of the attendees had tested positive, according to Arwady.
"We have a family of four that was all positive with a teenager in the household who had hosted a two-day card tournament, with many people coming through the home for this social gathering," Arwady said. "We're still investigating this case, but probably as many as 20 people may have been infected just in that setting."
"None of these are big, flashy stories. We've not seen major outbreaks that we can associate to one given spot like we could early on. But that is our challenge," she continued. "Because we have the ability to do more enforcement at places like restaurants and bars. We have the ability to put all of the good things in place that have been done to make workplaces as safe as they can be. We have the ability to regulate in our public spaces. But in private spaces, like households and social gatherings, the city of Chicago broadly can't regulate that activity."
Arwady implored residents to continue to follow public health guidelines and limit close contact - at times even within the home.
"I know that you feel safe at home, I feel safe at home. I know that you feel safe when you're among friends that, you know, it's easy to let your guard down to not wear masks to not social distance," she said. "But the problem is, as we're seeing cases increase, their risk is significantly higher. And as people are letting down their guard, they're out potentially contracting COVID and then bringing it back into households."
The number one risk factor for COVID-19 is exposure within the household, which is 10 times the risk of contracting it in any other manner, Arwady said.
"Recognize that when you are out and not being careful, even among your trusted friends and family, you do run the risk of bringing COVID back into your home and into your friends group," she added.
The age group seeing the largest increase in cases in Chicago continues to be the 18-29 year olds, Arwady said.
The city is averaging about 273 new coronavirus cases per day on average, she said - sharply down from the peak of more than 1,000 new cases on average in May, but still higher than where experts want the city to be, under 200 new cases per day. The city reached that low point roughly a month ago, Arwady said, but the cases have slowly been increasing since.
Chicago has seen a total of 61,587 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with more than 2,700 deaths across the city as of Tuesday, Arwady said.