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Dig out the masks: Indoor face coverings now recommended in Cook County as COVID-19 cases keep rising

The CDC is now recommending masks to be worn indoors in 84 of the state’s 102 counties — including Cook, DuPage, McHenry and Will.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle appears at an October news conference. The county is now among 84 in Illinois wear federal public health officials say people should wear masks in public places indoors due to rising COVID-19 cases.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle appears at an October news conference. The county is now among 84 in Illinois wear federal public health officials say people should wear masks in public places indoors due to rising COVID-19 cases.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Masks should be worn by anyone inside a public place in Cook County regardless of COVID-19 vaccination status, federal officials advised Thursday.

Nearly all of the Chicago area is now seeing a “substantial” level of coronavirus transmission as determined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The indoor masking recommendations laid out earlier this week already apply to most of Illinois as infections driven by the Delta variant soar to the highest levels seen in about three months.

Under the CDC guidelines, counties that have recorded between 50 and 99 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over the previous week are considered at a substantial transmission level, while anything over 100 is considered high transmission.

Cook County is now at about 52 cases per 100,000 residents. DuPage is at about 59, McHenry is at about 58 and Will is at almost 73.

Kane and Lake are the only Chicago-area counties still considered at a moderate level of transmission, but they’re not far off from the indoor mask recommendation. Kane is reporting about 47 cases per 100,000 residents, and Lake is at 42.

The numbers get worse downstate, with almost the entire southern portion of Illinois at a high transmission level. Masks should now be worn indoors in 84 of the state’s 102 counties.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced he’s requiring face masks for all inside state facilities, but stopped short of re-instituting a statewide mask mandate like the one that was in place most of last year.

“Vaccines work — but we cannot promise those protections for every single future variant if we allow this virus to spread and mutate unchecked in our communities,” Pritzker said in a statement. “With all the misinformation out there, I encourage all eligible Illinoisans who haven’t been vaccinated yet to talk to their doctors to alleviate any of their fears.”

Counties marked orange or red are considered to be at a substantial or high risk level for COVID-19 transmission.
Counties marked orange or red are considered to be at a substantial or high risk level for COVID-19 transmission.
CDC

During an unrelated news conference, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said she’s already requiring masks inside the Cook County Building in the Loop.

Dr. Rachel Rubin, co-lead of the Cook County Department of Public Health, said in a statement that “we strongly recommend that everyone follow the CDC recommendations” and that the county would issue an updated masking guidance Friday.

Throughout the pandemic, the Chicago Department of Public Health has implemented its own COVID-19 protocols separately from the Cook County Department of Public Health, but the CDC makes no distinction between the two municipal bodies. City health officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the latest CDC update.

During an online Q&A a few hours before Cook County was added to the federal list, Chicago Public Health Commissioner Allison Arwady suggested the city could implement an indoor mask mandate “very shortly.”

Chicago has reported an average of 190 cases per day over the past week, a 63% increase compared to last week. The city — which welcomes an estimated 400,000 people to Grant Park for Lollapalooza this weekend — was reporting only a few dozen cases per day in late June.

That shakes out to about 48 cases cases per 100,000 residents over the last week, just shy of the CDC masking threshold. Once the city hits 200 cases per day, Chicago will formally be at the “substantial” level, according to Arwady.

“I do anticipate we will be moving very shortly into that substantial risk category,” she said. “This is related to the Delta variant and the fact that it is here and it is spreading. And unfortunately, although Chicago is doing better than the great majority of the state and the great majority of the country, we are seeing those increases.”

Arwady added: “I wouldn’t be surprised if by early next week we’re making some formal announcements about that [potential mask mandate].”

Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady.
Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Almost 11,000 new COVID-19 cases have been reported by the Illinois Department of Public Health over the past week, which is more than the state logged throughout all of June (about 9,500 cases). Officials reported 2,082 cases on Wednesday, the first time Illinois has topped 2,000 cases in a day since the first week of May.

The average statewide case positivity rate is at 4%, up from a pandemic low of 0.6% in late June. Experts say this latest surge is driven by the more infectious Delta variant of COVID-19, which is now thought to account for well over half of new cases.

Nightly COVID-19 hospitalizations have doubled since the start of the month, with 857 beds occupied Wednesday night. The state is still losing an average of seven residents to the virus every day, a rate that has remained mostly level this month.

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.

While troubling, the numbers are all still well below peak levels seen during the worst of the crisis last fall.

The vast majority of new cases are being diagnosed in people who haven’t received one of the COVID-19 vaccines, which are all still effective against the Delta variant.

About 72% of eligible Illinoisans have gotten at least one shot, but vaccination rates are barely half that in some counties, mostly downstate.

And Delta is still making a dent in highly vaccinated areas such as DuPage County, which has one of the top vax rates in the state. Shots have already gone into 82% of eligible arms in those western suburbs.

But since the start of the month, DuPage has gone from about 10 cases per day to more than 100 — and from zero COVID-19 hospitalizations to 41, according to Karen Ayala, executive director of the DuPage County Health Department.

“The Delta variant doesn’t really care who’s gotten vaccinated. It’s just looking for the next person who hasn’t been vaccinated,” Ayala said. “We as a community now need to take steps to thwart that spread.”

She said that besides promoting vaccination, one of the biggest challenges facing public health officials at this stage of the pandemic will be persuading people to take masking seriously.

“We’ve all gotten to like the feel of sunshine on our faces, but this is an evolving virus, and we need to evolve our plans.”