Illinois coronavirus: Masks urged for Chicago area as risk level rises to ‘medium’

You’re not required to mask up indoors, but you really should.

That’s the latest message from public school and health officials in Chicago, where the COVID-19 risk level has moved from “low” to “medium” on the color-coded transmission rating system set by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As a result, the city Department of Public Health said Friday it “is strongly recommending masking,” including in Chicago Public Schools and on public transit.

Because coronavirus hospitalizations remain relatively low — though they’re inching upward, too — face coverings aren’t mandated, but “we strongly urge people to mask up,” according to Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady.

“It’s not a cause for alarm, since most cases right now are mild and thankfully our COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths remain at or near all-time pandemic lows in Chicago,” Arwady said in a statement.

“But it is reason for more caution, and for more care with masking, since more people in Chicago are infected with COVID right now.”

Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady at a news conference last November.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

The CDC flags counties at the yellow “medium” risk category — and urges indoor masking by older people and the immunocompromised — when cases rise to a weekly average of 200 or more per 100,000 residents. Cook County is up to 259.3.

Statewide, cases have more than tripled over the past month, from a seven-day average of about 1,400 per day as of April 6, up to almost 4,400 per day over the past week.

Two weeks ago, DuPage County became the first of Chicago’s collars to see its risk level move from green to yellow. Last week, it was suburban Cook County. Now, the entire Chicago area — from Will County north to Lake, all the way west to DeKalb — is seeing yellow.

COVID-19 transmission is at a medium level in counties marked red, under federal guidelines.

COVID-19 transmission is at a medium level in counties marked red, under federal guidelines.

Illinois Department of Public Health

“The public should pay close attention to these rising community levels, but we would stress this is not a cause for alarm,” acting Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Amaal Tokars said in a statement. “People who are at risk of severe outcomes should exercise caution.”

Arwady has said the city won’t reinstate a mask mandate unless it hits the orange “high” risk category, triggered by higher hospital admissions and lower intensive care unit bed availability. Cook County is still well short of those metrics.

Chicago cases are up to an average of 754 per day the past week, a 16% increase over the previous week but still a tiny fraction of the peak January Omicron variant wave during which the city averaged almost 7,000 daily cases, the worst of the pandemic . The city saw a similar increase in April 2021 before cases tapered off as the weather warmed heading into the summer.

The city averaged about 16 new COVID hospitalizations per day over the last week, still near the pandemic low, but a 24% increase from the previous week. Deaths, which usually lay behind rising cases and hospitalizations, remain near an all-time low average of about one every three days.

Cases are also on the rise in Chicago Public Schools, as the district’s infections typically mirror community spread.

Last week 831 students and 334 adults tested positive for the virus — up from 438 children and 254 staff members the prior week and representing the district’s highest case totals since January Omicron wave. Corresponding quarantines are also up, with 1,805 students and 284 adults learning and working from home as of late Thursday.

In an email to CPS families and staff, CEO Pedro Martinez said the district would continue to “strongly encourage the use of masks in our schools, especially among our unvaccinated students, and especially when cases are rising.” But the school system followed the city’s lead in opting against a mandate.

“As we have done since the start of the pandemic, CPS will continue to follow the recommendations of the Chicago Department of Public Health when making decisions about how this change will impact our schools,” Martinez wrote in the email.

Pedro Martinez talks outside Benito Juarez High School.

Pedro Martinez talks outside Benito Juarez High School.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

The district has fought efforts over the past few months by a group of parents and a downstate candidate for attorney general to get rid of all COVID-19 precautions in schools.

Martinez announced CPS would drop its mask mandate in March just a week after he had reaffirmed the school system’s commitment to face coverings. Though his announcement cited a sharp decline in cases, he later hinted the move was intended to preemptively avoid a pending court ruling that would have blocked CPS’ ability to mandate masks in the future. He assured families, though, that CPS would reinstate the requirement if cases rose again.

While masks still won’t be required for now, the district will continue its isolation policy for unvaccinated students and staff, requiring those who are exposed to COVID-19 to work or learn from home for five days, then wear a mask in school for the next five days.

CPS continues testing in schools under a program that has led to Chicagoans under the age of 18 to be the most highly tested age group for COVID-19. Families who haven’t signed up for in-school testing can do so at color.com/readycheckgo-cps.

Martinez also encouraged those who aren’t vaccinated or boosted to seek shots. City employees must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, while inoculations remain optional for students. Anyone age 5 and up is eligible for a vaccine. More information and appointments are available at cps.edu/vaccinations.

“Vaccines are the safest, most effective tool we have to slow the spread of COVID-19 and return our community to a low-risk category, so I strongly encourage all students and families who are not yet fully vaccinated to take this step as soon as possible,” Martinez said.

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