Watch CBS News

Chicago's Top Doctor 'Concerned' About COVID Variant Omicron, CPS To Start Voluntary COVID Testing For Students

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Chicago's top doctor said the Omicron variant of COVID-19 could be detected in Chicago very soon.

Dr. Allison Arwady, Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) said Omicron emerged quickly in South Africa and while it's concerning, the COVID vaccine is still the best defense.

"As of yesterday (Monday), it had already been detected in Africa and Asia, Australia, Europe, in Canada," Arwady said. "It had not been detected in the U.S., but I have no reason to think that there are not at least a few cases of it here and I would expect us to be formally detecting it in days or weeks."

Arwady added "I'm concerned about it. No, the sky is not falling, but we need to be serious and we need to get people vaccinated."

The city's school district will kick off a pilot program that starts in one unnamed school to test for COVID for students that consent to be tested. It's called Test to Stay and it's where students can opt to take a COVID test to stay in school. Dr. Allie Sontag is a nurse practitioner with the Office of Student Health and Wellness in Chicago Public Schools.


She said the feedback CPS has received from parents is the need for thorough communication. Sontag said CPS is working to make sure the information is available for parents.

"This week, we have a short list of schools that we will be looking at," Sontag said. "We aren't selecting a school based on the school. It has to have a case. So we have a shortlist of schools that have expressed interest from that list. If there is a case that comes up this week, we will be implementing tests to stay this will be optional. It's not required. Families will be offered the ability for their students who would have otherwise been asked to quarantine to stay in school and participate in this regimented testing program. And we're starting with one school."

She added "this is really why we're starting small, looking at the details, making sure that we've typed communications that our families understand both this process because it's it is a little odd, right, we've told you to stay home. And now we're telling you to come right with some caveat. So we want to make sure that we're communicating clearly to our families who would have been his students would have been asked to quarantine as well as the larger school community so that we can properly prepare these students to participate in activities during the test to stay program

For CPS students, Dr. Pedro Martinez, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools said the Test to Stay volunteer program will expand.

"The goal for tested stays just to start small but expanded throughout the school year because we don't know," Martinez said. "I can't predict for you when COVID will be at zero cases. So not knowing that I'd rather just really believe planned for the long term so that we just keep building it up through the end of the school year and really, if necessary through the beginning of the next school year. So that's that's really what our goal is. So we're starting small to learn. But just now that we're going to be ramping it up and we're playing we're playing the long game with this."

Martinez said CPS is starting with an elementary school.

"Because that's where we're seeing the biggest racial quarantine. And so we are we first are working so some of them, some of our families have to get comfortable with it. So you might think that every family wants this, but that's not true. So we actually are working with the principals," Martinez said.

He added that the districts' staff is also moving forward with more people who work for CPS getting vaccinated.

"Over 90 over 90% are fully vaccinated. Again, we still have staff that are in their first shot. We also have quite a few steps also have received medical and religious waiver. So we're still very happy about where we're at with staff," Martinez said. "We're going to continue to work with our staff that are never received vaccine just to make sure we get them the information get them access, but again, I feel very comfortable."

Arwady added that while it's a matter of time as to when Omicron will be detected in the area, the COVID vaccine and booster can prevent its spread.

"I am not concerned about detecting the variant. I'm concerned about how we respond to it. How we respond to the variant is all about getting vaccinated. Getting boosters. As a reminder, all Chicagoans 18 and over should get a vaccine booster," Arwady said.

As for children, Arwady said she is pleased that more children from ages five to 11 are getting at least the first dose of the COVID vaccine.

"I've been pleased with the relatively quick uptake here we've hit 23%. So almost one in four of Chicagoans five to 11 have had that first dose and we're just starting to see those second doses come in because it's been almost three weeks, or just about three weeks," Arwady said.

The head of CDPH said there are about 200 locations across the city with access to the pediatric vaccine. For adults, close to 700 locations across Chicago with the adult vaccine. Anyone with questions can call 312-746-4835. Arwady said while a person's doctor, pediatrician or healthcare provider is the first place people should go to for the vaccine, there are a few community events people can access the COVID vaccine. But Arwady said the city will be putting its efforts into going to people's homes to get them the vaccine.

"We are in the process of scaling back some of the community specific events that tend to have relatively smaller numbers. We're moving that capacity actually into our at home program. So starting next week, for the first time we will be expanding our app home program to seven day operations. So the first appointments will be available on weekends starting December 11," Arwady said.

On Tuesday, Dr. Arwady said California and North Carolina are no longer on the Chicago Travel Advisory list. She said for herself, personally, the COVID vaccine has helped her to enjoy the things she used to do.

" I felt very comfortable gathering over you know the holidays and really having a relatively normal life at the moment. I'm going to the theater, I'm going to restaurant doing all of that because I am vaccinated and boosted because I know that the people around me, at least who are close are vaccinated and boosted," Arwady said, "I can't predict 100% what the future may be but what I have learned over and over and over again is you do not want to wait for a potential worst case scenario right at all points here."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.