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Indoor masking ‘strongly recommended’ but still optional in Chicago and in schools as COVID-19 numbers climb – Chicago Tribune

Chicago health officials announced Friday that indoor masking is once again “strongly recommended” — but not required — in the city as the risk of contracting COVID-19 in Cook County has increased.

Chicago’s public health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady made the advisory after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deemed Cook County is now in the “medium” risk level for community transmission. The metrics are based on a combination of new cases and hospitalizations, but the medium category is automatically reached if weekly cases surpass 200 positive tests per 100,000 residents.

Arwady stressed that even though the county was in the medium risk category the city is not near reinstating mandates on indoor masking or proof-of-vaccination, though Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Transit Authority also are “encouraging” indoor masking.

“Chicago moving into the medium level does not mean a citywide mask mandate, restrictions on public gatherings, or reinstatement of vaccination requirements at this time,” Arwady said in a statement. “With the way the current COVID variants are behaving, those are measures we would consider if we reached the high COVID-19 community level — which we aren’t close to reaching in Chicago right now.”

At CPS, employees and parents received a letter from CPS CEO Pedro Martinez stating that the district will “continue strongly encouraging the use of masks in our schools,” especially among unvaccinated students, but it will not restore the mask mandate it dropped in March. Martinez said in the letter that CPS will follow the recommendations of the Chicago Department of Public Health.

Martinez noted the positivity rate of the district’s in-school COVID-19 testing program is 0.68% while the city’s positivity rate is 3.9%. The 0.68% positivity rate is the highest for the district’s testing program since January, near the end of the highly contagious omicron variant. CPS case numbers have been rising since students returned from spring break last month.

Last month, Arwady suggested a medium level designation could lead to a reinstated mask mandate at CPS, but this week she said only at high risk will any form of a mask requirement be put in place.

Technically this past week, the city of Chicago stood at 195 new cases per 100,000 residents — just below the 200-case threshold. But Arwady said the city would follow Cook County if the county broke 200 cases per 100,000 first. Cook County is at 259 cases per 100,000 residents, according to CDC data. Still, COVID-19 hospitalizations and ICU capacity remain low for both the city and the county.

The developments come one week after suburban Cook County areas reached the medium risk level, prompting officials to also recommend indoor masking, and as COVID-19 numbers climb across Illinois.

Statewide, health officials on Friday reported 7,709 new confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19, a level not seen since early February. Over the past week, the state has averaged 4,376 new cases per day, up from an average of 1,426 daily cases just one month ago.

While the CDC only tracks its community levels on a county-by-county basis, Illinois as a whole has a weekly case rate of 240 per 100,000 residents. In addition to Cook County, all five collar counties and eight others in northern and central Illinois are now at medium level, where older residents and those with compromised immune systems are encouraged to wear masks indoors.

Still, Amaal Tokars, acting director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, said in statement Friday that the agency “would stress this (is) not a cause for alarm.”

Those at greater risk for severe outcomes from COVID should “exercise caution,” and everyone should make sure they are up to date on their vaccinations, she said.

The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19, while still relatively low, also is increasing statewide.

As of Thursday night, there were 808 COVID-19 patients in hospitals statewide, up from 515 a month earlier. Hospitalizations for COVID-19 hit an all-time high of 7,380 on Jan. 12, the height of the winter surge driven by the omicron variant.

Deaths have remained low, with the state averaging seven per day over the past week, including seven reported Friday. In all, the statewide death toll stands at 33,660 since the pandemic began.

Chicago Tribune’s Dan Petrella contributed.

ayin@chicagotribune.com

tswartz@chicagotribune.com

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