‘Be smart’ on New Year’s, Lightfoot pleads as COVID-19 cases skyrocket

With infections soaring to record-breaking heights, Chicagoans “have to do everything that they can to make sure that they protect themselves,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said.

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People wait in line for a COVID-19 test at 1425 S Ashland Ave in University Village, Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021.

People wait in line Wednesday for a COVID-19 test at 1425 S. Ashland Ave in University Village.

Anthony Vázquez/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot is urging Chicagoans to “be smart” with their New Year’s Eve celebrations as an unprecedented surge in COVID-19 cases racks the city and the rest of Illinois.

Facing questions about her decision to host a downtown fireworks show along the Chicago River when the clock strikes midnight into 2022, Lightfoot on Wednesday said the latest record-breaking coronavirus surge will only crest if residents follow the basic precautions she’s been pushing for nearly two years: masking, spacing, sanitizing, testing and especially vaccinating.

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“This [case surge] is just doubling and doubling and doubling week after week,” the mayor said at a West Loop news conference on holiday safety plans. “People have to be smart, recognize that the pandemic is still with us, that the Omicron variant is real and that they have to do everything that they can to make sure that they protect themselves.”

“I’m not going to be the mom and tell people what they should and shouldn’t do,” Lightfoot continued. “But I know what I’m going to do, which is to be close, make sure that … if I gather, I’m only gathering with people that I know are vaccinated, particularly boosted. And in gatherings that I’ve been in, in social settings, we are having people take a test to make sure that they’re not positive.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks at a Wednesday news conference.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks at a Wednesday news conference.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The mayor encouraged people to watch the fireworks show from home instead of flocking downtown but said the fact that it’s an outdoor event should ease concerns about promoting a potential superspreader event.

The show will go on as more Illinoisans test positive for the virus than ever before. The Illinois Department of Public Health reported 21,098 new cases statewide, the second-highest total ever, trailing only the 21,131 positive tests returned on Christmas Eve.

New COVID-19 cases by day

Graphic by Jesse Howe and Caroline Hurley | Sun-Times

Source: Illinois Department of Public Health

Graph not displaying properly? Click here.

The state has averaged nearly 16,700 new cases each day over the past week, which surpasses the 15,000-plus cases that were recorded at the height of last fall’s surge. The seven-day average case positivity rate is up to 9.1%, higher than it’s ever been since vaccines were introduced.

About 3,825 Chicagoans are testing positive each day. “Our COVID cases right now are higher than they have ever been,” Arwady said.

Hospitals are quickly filling as a result. A total of 5,471 beds were occupied by COVID-19 patients statewide as of Tuesday night, a net increase of 271 in a day and the greatest burden health care workers have faced since Dec. 2, 2020.

That number is fast approaching the worst nights of the fall 2020 surge when more than 6,100 coronavirus patients were hospitalized.

And in a pattern that has now played out five times in Illinois since COVID first swept the state, deaths are gradually rising. Roughly 54 residents with the virus have died each day over the past week, compared to about 17 per day the week of Thanksgiving.

While cases, hospitalizations and deaths have risen among vaccinated people as well, they make up only a tiny fraction. The “vast majority” of serious cases have affected unvaccinated people, state officials say.

Less than a tenth of a percent of residents who completed their initial vaccine series have ended up in a hospital with COVID-19, and far fewer have died. People who have received a booster are even less likely to have severe symptoms.

“Our hospital surge — make no doubt about it — is being driven by unvaccinated Chicagoans,” Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said. “We need to do everything we can to protect our hospital capacity.”

Almost a quarter of eligible Illinoisans remain unvaccinated.

The life-saving doses are free at pharmacies nationwide. The city also offers free in-home vaccination appointments. For more information, visit chicago.gov/covidvax or call (312) 746-4835.

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