Omicron in Chicago and Illinois: What We Know About City's First Case of New Variant

How was the resident exposed and what do we know so far about the case?

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Illinois' first confirmed case of the omicron variant was announced Tuesday after being identified in a Chicago resident.

How was the resident exposed and what do we know so far about the case?

Here's a breakdown:

Was the Resident Vaccinated?

The case was reported in a fully vaccinated city resident who had also received a booster dose, officials said.

How Was the Person Exposed?

The resident was visited by an out-of-state traveler who also tested positive for the variant, according to both Chicago and Illinois' health departments.

What Were Their Symptoms?

The resident did not require hospitalization, is improving and has been self-isolating since their symptoms began, officials said.

“While unsurprising, this news should remind Chicagoans of the ongoing threat from COVID-19, especially as families prepare to come together over the holidays,” Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said in a statement. “We know how to slow the spread of this virus: get vaccinated, get boosted, get tested if you have symptoms or have been in contact with someone with COVID-19, and stay away from others if you test positive. Wear a mask indoors, avoid poorly ventilated spaces, practice social distancing, and wash your hands.”

How Was the Case Detected?

According to health experts, Rush University Medical Center helped form what is known as the Regional Innovative Public Health Laboratory, which collects a sample of specimens from the large hospitals across Chicago and conducts genomic analyses.

"This initial case was identified by RIPHL – through sequencing analysis of a specimen," officials said in a release.

Are There Other Cases in Illinois?

Health officials had been preparing for the variant to be detected in both the city and state this week.

Arwady said earlier in the day that 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 19 U.S. states. The Illinois case now lifts that total to 20.

What is Chicago Doing in Response?

In a Facebook Live Tuesday, Arwady said the city has had a plan in place for once the variant was identified.

Officials said the city 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 Moderna or Pfizer's vaccine or two months after the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

“The city and CDPH continue to closely monitor the omicron variant and work with medical experts to better inform our residents,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statment. “To meet the urgency of this moment, it’s crucial that our residents continue to get vaccinated and receive their booster shot. We are committed to distributing the vaccine as widely and equitably as we can across our city through community-based clinics, city-run clinics, and our recently expanded Protect Chicago At Home program.”

The similar calls were issued across the state.

“Scientists need time to learn more about the omicron COVID-19 variant, but in the meantime, we already know how to be vigilant,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in a release. “So, get your vaccine, get your booster, wear your mask indoors, wash your hands, and get tested for COVID-19 if you feel sick or have been exposed to someone who tested positive. I encourage all Illinois residents to make a plan for how to best protect themselves and their loved ones, especially in the holiday season.” 

It remains unclear if a booster shot geared toward the new variant will be necessary, according to health officials, but vaccine makers have already said they are preparing for the possibility.

"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."

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.

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.

“Public health experts and scientists worldwide continue to study the newest variant, omicron, to determine if it spreads more easily, causes more severe illness, and how effective the current vaccines are against it,” Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said in a statement. “While we don’t have all the answers right now, we know the general prevention strategies we’ve been recommending – vaccination, boosters, masking, testing, physical distancing – are our best protection against the virus and its variants. As long as the virus continues to circulate, it has the potential to mutate into new variants. Vaccination can help stop circulation, but we need more people to get vaccinated.”

Meanwhile, health officials say they plan on continuing to test for the variant across the region.

“By tracking SARS-CoV-2 in Chicago, we can detect changes in the virus that will help us to respond to COVID-19, locally and globally,” Dr. Mary Hayden, co-principal investigator of RIPHL at Rush, said in a statement. “Rush’s work with CDPH and other partnerships like it across the country are vital to public health, as the pandemic has made crystal clear.” 

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