Officials there say they hope the move will minimize hospitalizations and deaths down the line. According to the CDC guidelines, Philadelphia is in a low-risk category, same as Chicago.
The Chicago Department of Public Health began using the CDC’s guidelines earlier this month, and the Illinois Department of Public Health announced this week that it’s doing the same.
The shift measures community risk more by hospitalizations and deaths than by individual cases.
CDPH wouldn’t answer questions about whether it was considering recommending that a mask mandate be reinstated amid rising cases.
Instead, the department issued a statement reading, in part: “While Chicago and much of the country are experiencing an increase in new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are as low as we’ve seen them since the start of the pandemic, and under the CDC’s COVID-19 Community Levels we remain at low risk. We continue to watch the data closely, and as always that will guide our decisions on COVID mitigations.”
A community is considered low risk by the CDC if there are fewer than 200 new cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days and fewer than 10 hospitalizations in the same time period. As of Tuesday, there were only 10 COVID patients using ventilators in Chicago hospitals, a low the city had not seen since last July, according to CDPH.
“(Hospitalizations and deaths are) the most consequential public health outcomes,” says Dr. John Segreti, hospital epidemiologist and medical director of infection control and prevention at Rush University Medical Center. “Those are the ones that determine how severe the outbreak is, and if the health care system is overwhelmed and will be unable to take care of other conditions.”
Experts say it makes sense from a public health perspective to rely on the CDC guidelines because with more vaccinated individuals, we can expect fewer severe cases that lead to hospitalization and death. But case counts still remain an important part of the story.
Chicago saw 428 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday, up 41% from the week prior, according to CDPH data. Chicago’s positivity rate, based on about 22,000 laboratory tests, was at 2.2%, up from 1.7% a week ago. At a press conference last week, Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady says she estimates that about three times as many Chicagoans are testing positive for COVID because many are now testing themselves at home.
“Anyone who wants to avoid getting COVID should be wearing a mask in public places,” says Dr. Emily Landon, executive medical director, infection prevention and control, at the University of Chicago Medicine.
Even if individuals aren’t becoming infected with severe COVID cases that send them to the hospital, being sick with common symptoms, like fever, cough and congestion, can have other consequences, like keeping people out of work.
“(Cases) still an important metric,” Segreti says. “From a staffing standpoint, number of cases is still important to us because if someone is sick, they can’t work.”
Aside from altering how COVID risk is measured, local health officials are changing other facets of their COVID response and resources. CDPH said Tuesday that it will cut its public COVID-19 briefing with Arwady, called “Ask Dr. Arwady,” from twice a week to once a week. The briefings have been a useful resource for residents to submit COVID questions directly to Arwady.
IDPH also closed its 10 community COVID-19 testing sites last month.