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Chicago expected to move to "high risk" level for COVID-19 on Friday, but mask and vaccine mandates won't return

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Chicago likely will move into the "high risk" level for COVID-19 on Friday, although city officials said that will not mean a return to mask or vaccine mandates, as hospitalizations from the virus remain low.

"We are not reinstating the mask or vaccine requirement mandates, because the health system in Chicago remains stable," Chicago Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Commissioner Ken Meyer said.

Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said, with COVID-19 cases still rising in Chicago, the city is expected to move into the CDC's high COVID-19 community level on Friday.

Chicago is currently averaging 290 new cases per 100,000 people over the last seven days, according to Arwady.

"We remain out of the top 15 states in terms of cases, and I don't have major concern about the direction that cases are going," Arwady said.

Arwady said, while the city is still recommending that people wear masks indoors, because the city is currently at the "medium risk" level for COVID-19, she doesn't believe a mask mandate is necessary unless hospitals start to get overwhelmed with cases again.

"Here in Chicago, if our health care system is threatened, I would not hesitate to put a mask requirement back in place," Arwady said. "The last thing we want is COVID to get out of control again."

The city is averaging 28 new COVID-19 hospitalizations per day, compared to more than 300 per day at the peak of the Omicron surge earlier this year.

But Arwady said hospitalizations going up very slowly compared to earlier in the pandemic, so there is "no major worry here at the moment, but especially as you move into high, we're keeping our eye on it."

Chicago's 34 acute-care hospitals are currently treating 204 COVID-19 patients, with 31 of them in intensive care, and 11 on ventilators. During the peak of the COVID surge in January, hospitals were seeing 10 times as many patients.

Arwady said she remains concerned that there could be a new strain of the virus that would be more infectious than previous strains, and could cause hospitals to fill up again, and force officials to reinstate COVID-19 restrictions, but she said there's nothing to suggest that the dominant Omicron strain is going to get out of control.

Arwady said since March, Chicago has consistently seen the fewest COVID deaths of any point of the pandemic, averaging only 1-3 deaths per week across the city during that time. At the peak of the pandemic, 50 to 60 Chicagoans were dying of COVID-19 every day, according to Arwady.

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