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Omicron is upon us: Illinois’ first case of latest COVID-19 variant confirmed in Chicago resident

The person who contracted the variant case had been fully vaccinated and boosted, officials said.

A person receives a COVID-19 vaccine earlier this year at Chicago Vocational Career Academy. Officials are urging more people to get vaccinated as the Omicron variant surfaces in Illinois.
A person receives a COVID-19 vaccine earlier this year at Chicago Vocational Career Academy. Officials are urging more people to get vaccinated as the Omicron variant surfaces in Illinois.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Omicron has officially arrived in Chicago.

Public health officials on Tuesday announced COVID-19’s latest “variant of concern” was detected in a fully vaccinated Chicago resident who had received a booster dose. That person had been in contact with a visitor to the city who contracted Omicron.

The infected Chicagoan “did not require hospitalization, is improving and has been self-isolating since their symptoms began,” officials from the Illinois and Chicago public health departments said in a joint statement. Further contact tracing is underway.

“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 Public Health Director 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.”

Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady speaks during a news conference last month.
Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady gives an update about COVID-19 cases and vaccine information during a news conference last month.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Since Omicron was designated as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization the day after Thanksgiving, it has surfaced in dozens of countries and at least 17 other states.

Local officials have agreed that Omicron probably has already been circulating in Illinois for at least a few weeks before it was detected through genomic sequencing, a process that entails analyzing the genetic structure of COVID-19 test samples.

While early evidence suggests Omicron could be more infectious than previous variants — with a higher likelihood of re-infecting people who have already weathered a case of COVID-19 — experts are still trying to nail down key facts about it.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says Omicron “likely will spread more easily” than earlier versions of the virus, but it’s not yet clear how it compares to the Delta variant — which is still wreaking havoc on unvaccinated communities in Illinois and beyond. Cases, hospitalizations and deaths are at some of the highest levels seen in Illinois since last winter.

The CDC still says “current vaccines are expected to protect against severe illness” with the new variant. And while some existing COVID-19 treatments are expected to work on Omicron, “others may be less effective,” according to the CDC.

The bottom line: get vaccinated, and wear masks in public settings indoors, officials say.

“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,” Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said in a statement.

Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike answers questions from the media last  year.
Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike answers questions from the media last year.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

During an online Q&A hours before Chicago’s first Omicron case was confirmed, Arwady said the city might consider beefing up vaccination requirements in response to a case surge that showed no signs of slowing down even before the new variant was detected.

“Might we begin requiring proof of vaccination for more activities and public spaces? Yes, I think we might. I certainly am more interested in that than I am in needing to do some of the major shutdowns [like last year],” Arwady said.

“Theaters and many other spaces have already been doing this [requiring proof of vaccination], but it is certainly something that … as this increase is continuing, perhaps with a new variant, we may do more of.”

Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady vaccinates Chicago first lady Amy Eshleman last month.
Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady vaccinates Chicago first lady Amy Eshleman at Michele Clark Magnet High School in the South Austin neighborhood last month.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Gov. J.B. Pritzker said that the state is trying to help bolster staffing at hospitals, in anticipation of a potential Omicron surge.

“I’m hopeful that what is now a surge of Delta variant that is filling our hospitals will abate over time and that we’ll be able to manage through Omicron, which so far appears to be a little less virulent,” Pritzker said Tuesday at a news conference before the variant was confirmed in Chicago. “I want to encourage everybody: please get vaccinated. That is what will ultimately keep you from going into the hospital.”

The vaccines 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.