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What to Expect Now That Omicron Variant is in Chicago, According to City's Top Doc

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Chicago health officials announced the city's first confirmed case of the omicron variant Tuesday, so what could that mean for residents and what could happen next?

Just before the announcement of the variant's first city case, Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady laid out the city's plan during a Facebook Live saying the question was not when the variant would be detected, but rather "the question is our response."

She noted plans to continue pushing for residents to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and get their booster shots as soon as they are eligible, meaning six months after their second shot of Moderna or Pfizer's vaccine or two months after the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

"We are still learning. Lots of you are asking, 'Are we going to need an omicron booster? We might," Arwady said. "We’ll know in another two weeks or so once all the data has been collected related to how well not just has the vaccine been protecting around the world, but has the booster been protecting. How well has 'natural immunity,' been protecting? Because we've been seeing a lot of folks who were kind of counting on prior infection getting infected again with this omicron variant in other parts of the world. And so I don't have the answers out of whether an omicron booster will be needed, but what I do know is that getting the vaccines we have now and getting boosted has helped protect against the spread of omicron in a number of case examples."

Masks will continue to be required indoors, Arwady said, and testing availability will be increased. City employees will be encouraged to stay home if they are sick, though vaccine requirements will likely continue and Chicago may begin requiring proof of vaccination for certain public spaces or activities, Arwady said.

"I'm more interested in that than I am in needing to, you know, do some of the major shutdowns and theaters and many other places have already been doing this but it is certainly something that if, you know, as this increase is continuing and perhaps with the new variant we may do more of," she said.

Though she did not elaborate on which spaces or activities would require vaccines, city officials have long said they were looking at similar measures taken in New York City, which required proof of vaccination for things like indoor dining and other activities.

As it stands now, New York City's vaccine mandate requires proof of vaccination to enter restaurants, bars, gyms and other venues. That requirement has not applied to the youngest eligible for vaccination, those aged 5 to 11, but it will going forward, though children in that age group will only have to show proof of one dose for now.

Arwady said test results are currently pending for city residents who are known contacts of out-of-state or out-of-country omicron variant cases.

"We are following multiple individuals who we know had exposures, whether they were traveling in the U.S. or even internationally, and we have a pretty robust way to share information in a way to protect privacy but allow us to do case investigation or contact tracing, including over state boundaries," she said.

So far the variant has already been detected in at least 20 U.S. states, including Illinois.

Based on the latest data, Arwady said omicron appears to be twice as contagious the delta COVID variant, which is already causing a surge throughout Chicago and much of the Midwest.

On Saturday, Wisconsin recorded its first case of the highly mutated omicron COVID variant in a resident who, according to the health department, recently traveled to South Africa.

On Thursday, Minnesota recorded the first Midwest case of the omicron COVID variant via a specimen from a resident "with recent travel history to New York City," health officials said.

Health officials in both Wisconsin and Minnesota urged residents to get vaccinated against COVID, wear well-fitting masks, get a booster shot if eligible and get tested if you have symptoms.

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