Dr. Arwady says Chicago facing ‘very significant’ COVID-19 surge as Omicron variant arrives


CHICAGO — Hours before news broke that the Omicron variant was detected in Chicago, city health officials warned of a Midwest surge in COVID-19 cases amid cold weather.

Dr. Allison Arwady says she prefers the idea of vaccination requirements rather than shutdowns and capacity restrictions, but one significant restaurant association disagrees. Arwady, however, anticipated the omicron variant’s arrival in Illinois sometime soon.

“Absolutely, expect that it will be detected in Chicago or Illinois even in the next day or two,” Arwady said.

Late Tuesday afternoon, the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) announced that the state’s first known Omicron COVID-19 variant case is a Chicago resident. Health officials add that the resident was fully vaccinated. 

One of the doctors who first discovered the variant in Chicago said it’s likely to spread fast.

“A sample that had been submitted to the Regional Innovative Public Health Lab was suspicious for Omicron,” said Dr. Mary Hayden with Rush University Medical Center. “Omicron has many mutations that the other circulating variants don’t have and because it’s distinctive in that way, we could very quickly identify it as Omicron.”

Before notification of the state’s first Omicron case, the Chicago Department of Public Health commissioner said she had concerns that the city was now dealing with a second wave of the delta variant.

“We have moved into very high transmission,” Arwady said.

During a Facebook question and answer session with the public Tuesday morning, Arwady said Covid cases are now averaging more than 800 over the last week, meaning there’s a ‘very high risk’ of COVID-19 transmission — up more than 180% since Nov. 1, when fewer than 300 cases a day were reported. 

Chicago’s positivity rate is also up to 4.1%. At the beginning of November, it was just 1.6%.

Arwady also raised the prospect of a new citywide requirement for people to show proof of vaccination to enter theatres, gyms, restaurants and bars. 

“It’s certainly something that, as this increase is continuing and with a new variant, we may do more of,” Arwady said. 

Roger Romanelli, who represents restaurants in Chicago’s Fulton Market District, says further restrictions would be ineffective at increasing vaccinations and only hurt restaurants.

“We’ve seen in New York and other cities that restaurant staff are getting beat up when they demand vaccination papers from people,” Romanelli said. “So look, restaurants are working hard. But they’re not the only ones that should be burdened to solve this crisis. And time and again, the city is insisting that restaurants, restaurants have the burden to solve the Covid crisis. It’s not fair, and there’s no money to support it from the city.”

Governor Pritzker was asked if he would consider a private sector vaccine mandate, like the one in place now in New York? In response, Pritzker said that is not on the table.

“That is not something we’ve been looking at,” Pritzker said. “We have people getting vaccinated every day as more people get sick nearly and go to the hospital. All of them are unvaccinated.”

About 59% of the 12 million people in Illinois are fully vaccinated. 

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