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Medical group says businesses can go mask optional if employees are 100% vaccinated

The Chicago Medical Society is recommending eased masking requirements for businesses who can control whether only vaccinated people are allowed inside.

Barbara Shields-Johnson, director of Nursing Services at Loretto Hospital, gets her 2nd and final dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Norwegian American Hospital on the West Side, Tuesday morning, Jan. 5, 2021. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
A woman receives a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. The Chicago Medical Society is advocating masks being optional if businesses are 100% vaccinated and can control entry to the building. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

A major local medical group says masks aren’t needed, even with the delta variant, inside businesses whose employees are 100% vaccinated and where all customers are required to prove they’ve gotten shots, too.

The Chicago Medical Society is advocating for lifting Illinois’ indoor mask mandate in those situations, although it emphasizes that in no circumstances should unvaccinated people go maskless indoors.

But in communities where virus transmission rates are low and COVID-19 vaccination rates are high, masks no longer are necessary for everyone, said Dr. Vishnu Chundi, chair of the medical group’s COVID-19 task force and an infectious disease specialist.

“Masking gives you time — it’s a mitigation measure,” Chundi said. “Vaccines are the solution for the pandemic.”

The Chicago Medical Society’s plan would reward businesses for requiring employees to get vaccinated and incentivize more companies to follow suit, Chundi said. Customers who verify their vaccine status can also go without masks at places where all workers are vaccinated, he said. Relying on regular testing as an alternative to vaccination — a compromise being pushed for some hesitant workers — isn’t enough to allow a workplace to maskless, Chundi said, since tests aren’t always entirely accurate.

But overall, the hope is that customers would prefer to visit restaurants, gyms and similar places where they know everyone else is vaccinated.

“Right now, you don’t know if the person sitting next to you is vaccinated,” Chundi said. “It’s safer when you know all the employees are vaccinated, everyone who comes in is vaccinated.”

The vast majority of COVID-19 cases among people who are fully vaccinated don’t result in hospitalizations and deaths, and vaccinated people don’t spread the virus as much among one another, Chundi said. Though there has been a small percentage of breakthrough cases among the fully vaccinated, those cases have generally not lead to serious symptoms, he said.

Made up of about 8,000 members, the Chicago Medical Society represents all physicians in the Chicago metropolitan area in policy and advocacy efforts. That has included urging Gov. J.B. Pritzker to protect health care workers from lawsuits early on in the pandemic, as well as helping circulate convalescent plasma among Chicago-area hospitals as a potential treatment option.

Dr. Vishnu Chundi, infectious disease specialist and co-chair of the Chicago Medical Society's COVID-19 Task Force.
Metro Infectious Disease Consultants

In addition to chairing the society’s COVID-19 task force, Chundi is a practicing physician and partner at Metro Infectious Disease Consultants. It’s the largest infectious disease consultant group, and members staff more than 200 hospitals nationwide, including most hospitals in the Chicago area, Chundi said.

With this plan, the task force is recommending Pritzker repeal the statewide mask mandate that requires everyone — regardless of vaccination status — wear them indoors. Instead, there should be a threshold of transmission rates, under which workers or customers at fully vaccinated businesses wouldn’t have to wear masks.

Businesses would then need an easy, affordable and trustworthy way to verify someone’s status. The Chicago Medical Society points to SMART Health Card, which provides a scannable QR code to easily share someone’s vaccination status. Former CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden named SMART Health Card as a viable verification framework in a September opinion piece in the New York Times.

The systems already exist to make a plan like this possible in Illinois, Chundi said. Chundi said this could be a major step toward economic recovery for businesses while still keeping people safe.

“We have all the pieces,” Chundi said. “We’ve got to figure out a better way than what we’ve been doing.”

Pritzker’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

However, other local doctors have raised alarms recently about the possibility of vaccinated people spreading the virus without knowing it and have continued to urge the state keep strict mitigation efforts in place.

Areas such as north suburban Skokie, for example, have had a seven-day positivity rate below 1%, and paired with widespread vaccinations, Chundi said these communities could benefit from looser mask requirements.

In cities like New York City and San Francisco, businesses like gyms, restaurants and indoor entertainment venues are already required to verify people’s vaccination statuses. In San Francisco, mask mandates will ease for certain fully vaccinated businesses starting Oct. 15, the city announced last week.

Ultimately, widespread vaccination is what will move the pandemic to an endemic, with lower transmission rates and less frequent hospitalizations or deaths related to COVID-19, Chundi said.

“We’re in the seventh or eighth inning” of the pandemic, Chundi said. “We’ve got to get to a place where the game ends.”