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City officials, ‘prepared to take action’ after discovery of omicron variant, urge more people to get vaccinated

The latest variant identified in South Africa should encourage more people to get vaccinated against COVID-19, city officials said.

Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady at a news conference last November.
Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady, shown at a Nov. 12 news conference.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Chicago public health officials say the latest variant of COVID-19 isn’t a cause for alarm — yet — but it is another reason for residents to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

The Chicago Department of Health said Friday it’s monitoring developments in the so-called “omicron” variant identified in South Africa, and they’re “prepared to take action to protect the health of Chicagoans.”

“At this time, more data is needed and expected to come on the transmissibility, disease severity, and vaccine efficacy against this variant,” a spokesperson for the agency said in an email. “Getting vaccinated is the number one way to protect yourself from getting sick, going to the hospital, or dying from COVID-19, but we also need to get more people vaccinated to stop new variants from developing, spreading or getting stronger.”

Dr. Rachel Rubin, co-lead and senior medical officer of the Cook County Department of Public Health, said “it is more important than ever to continue to follow public health recommendations: mask up, wash your Hands, stay physically distant, and most importantly, get vaccinated and get your booster as soon as you are eligible.”

No omicron cases have been detected yet in Chicago or anywhere else in the United States.

Officials from the World Health Organization say the latest variant, known in scientific circles as B.1.1.529, might pose more of a threat of re-infection among people who have already come down with the disease. But more research is needed to find out whether it’s more transmissible, if it causes more severe symptoms or if it’s resistant to vaccines.

Numerous variants have emerged through mutation while the virus has reproduced hundreds of millions of times throughout the pandemic, but only a few have proven more dangerous.

Those variants — like delta, which swept the United States over the summer and now accounts for the vast majority of cases worldwide — are categorized as “variants of concern.”

Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady has said the alarm bells shouldn’t go off completely unless world health officials designate a “variant of high consequence,” which hasn’t happened yet.

“That would be a big deal,” Arwady said during an August Q&A. “That would mean [something] like the vaccine was not working very well and people were more seriously ill. … New variants should not surprise anybody, but the main thing we’re watching [for] is that the vaccines continue to protect well.”

And so far, they have. Less than one half of one percent of fully vaccinated Illinoisans have ended up in a hospital bed with COVID-19, and 0.014% of them have died.

In Chicago, 72.2% of residents 5 or older have gotten at least one shot, and about 65% are fully vaccinated.

“CDPH encourages everyone who hasn’t gotten their COVID-19 primary vaccine ​series or booster yet to do it now. It will protect you in many ways and it will also help us stop the spread,” city officials said.

For help finding a shot in the city, visit chicago.gov/covidvax or call (312) 746-4835.