March mildness? COVID-19 cases down 94% from Omicron peak as masks in Illinois come off next week

Under new CDC guidelines, masks are still recommended in 21 counties across southern and central Illinois, but not in any part of the Chicago area.

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A runner runs along the Lakefront path near North Avenue Beach last month. Starting next week, residents won’t need to go outdoors to take off their masks.

A runner runs along the Lakefront path near North Avenue Beach last month. Starting next week, residents won’t need to go outdoors to take off their masks.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

As Illinois prepares to go mostly maskless, COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations are at the lowest levels seen since last summer, with cases plummeting 94% from the peak of the Omicron surge.

The Illinois Department of Public Health on Friday reported 13,028 new cases for the week, an average of about 1,861 per day — and a far cry from the staggering numbers reported at the height of the spike in early January, when almost 30,000 residents were testing positive every day.

Hospitalizations have plunged more than 84% since then, from an all-time high of 7,320 down to 1,143 as of Thursday night — the lowest number of admissions since early August.

The virus is still claiming about 51 Illinois lives each day, but that death rate is still more than 50% lower than it was last month.

The promising numbers come as Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s statewide indoor mask mandate is slated to expire Monday, meaning people can go bare-faced in most businesses and venues — but not on public transit or in nursing homes and other congregate care settings, where they’re still required by federal mandate.

“Today, our hospitals are much better positioned to handle emergencies and more than half of all eligible adults have been boosted; this is the progress we needed to make to remove our state indoor masking requirements,” Pritzker said in a statement.

“As individuals, I encourage everyone to make the best choices going forward to protect your health, along with that of your family and community — and most importantly to treat each other with kindness and compassion.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks in the Pullman neighborhood in 2020.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks in the Pullman neighborhood in 2020.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

And while Pritzker had insisted face coverings are still required in most schools, the governor announced Friday that he was also abandoning that policy on Monday, citing new guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The reversal came just hours after the Illinois Supreme Court declined to hear the state’s appeal in a case that included a downstate judge’s order gutting the classroom requirement.

Under the new guidelines set by the CDC that take into account hospitalization and case numbers, masks are still recommended in 21 counties across southern and central Illinois, but not in any part of the Chicago area.

The numbers haven’t been better in Chicago since mid-July, according to data from the city Department of Public Health. The average citywide positivity rate is down to 1.3%, with cases, hospitalizations and deaths all down more than 29% since last week.`

COVID-19 transmission map compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention using data last updated Feb. 25, 2022.

COVID-19 transmission map compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention using data last updated Feb. 25, 2022.

https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data

The governor has credited masking requirements and vaccination efforts for improving Illinois’ coronavirus standing. The seven-day average statewide positivity rate of 1.8% hasn’t been lower since July, and all the major metrics are better than they were back in May of 2021 when Pritzker lifted his mask mandate the first time.

About 81% of eligible Illinoisans have gotten at least one vaccine dose, 72% have completed their initial vaccine series and nearly half have gotten a booster.

For help finding a shot, or to set up a free in-home vaccination appointment, visit chicago.gov/covidvax or call (312) 746-4835.

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