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Chicago, suburbs, collar counties now at high community risk level for COVID-19

COVID-19 risk reaches high level in Chicago; officials urge masking up
COVID-19 risk reaches high level in Chicago; officials urge masking up 02:23

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has added 15 Illinois counties to the high community risk level for COVID-19 – including Chicago, suburban Cook County, and the collar counties.

The announcement came before a long holiday weekend was set to begin.

The counties now on the high community level are Cook County – apparently including both the city of Chicago and suburban Cook County – as well as DuPage, Lake, McHenry, Will, and Grundy counties. Boone, Lee, and Winnebago counties in Northern Illinois, and Fulton, Knox, Henderson, Mason, Peoria, and Tazewell counties downstate, are also on the list.

"With 15 counties in Illinois now rated at a High Community Level, everyone in the state should be paying close attention to the guidance from public health authorities and taking action to protect themselves, their loved ones, and friends," Illinois Department of Public Health Acting Director Amaal Tokars said in a news release. "Everyone should make sure they are up-to-date with vaccinations and booster shots. Wearing a mask in indoor public places and avoiding crowded indoor spaces as much as possible will also make a difference. If you are at risk of severe outcomes, you should also consider avoiding indoor activities in public places. And if you test positive, promptly contact a healthcare provider to discuss which treatment is right for you. The treatments are much more effective at preventing hospitalizations and deaths when they are taken early in the course of the illness."

In areas of high risk, the CDC recommends that everyone wear a well-fitting mask indoors in public, regardless of vaccination status.

Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady warned the advance to the high risk level was coming. But 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.

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."

But she said mandate or not, people still must wear masks as a matter of public health.

"Wear a mask indoors in public – yes, that means you – regardless of your vaccination status," Arwady said. "As we move into high, put that mask on."

Arwady also urged people to avoid large gatherings, test if they have symptoms, and get booster shots of COVID-19 vaccine.

Still, Arwady said this does not mean any outdoor events need to be canceled this Memorial Day weekend.

"I'm glad there will be plenty of outdoor activities this weekend to celebrate Memorial Day," Arwady said in a news release. "This news doesn't need to impact picnics, parades, or outdoor parties planned for the holiday weekend, but as we move into a High COVID level, we advise some extra caution when it comes to indoor gatherings. People at high risk should consider limiting non-essential indoor gatherings."

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.

As CBS 2's Jermont Terry reported, plenty of people were out and about on the Riverwalk downtown Thursday night. Some were even wearing a mask outside, but others said getting people to go back to wearing masks inside might not be realistic unless a mandate is reinstated.

"Oh it's going to take a mandate," said Sid Evans. "Nobody's going to listen to that."

Evans does not want to see a new indoor mask mandate – which is why she backs the voluntary request to mask up indoors.

"I'll do whatever it takes. I'm not weird about it. If we have to comply to with that, then it is what it is," Evans said. "I don't want to get back into another shutdown."

Yet plenty of people are against covering their faces again as the weather warms up. Jose Casal says he will not do it.

"I've got my mask here just in case somebody asks me to put it on, but I'm not wearing it," he said.

Casal was visiting from Puerto Rico. He is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and is one who believes the vaccines are enough.

"The people that we know that have gotten COVID recently, it hasn't even been really tough," he said. "It's been like a normal cold, so is the use of masks going to do anything more?"

But city leaders do not want people to think the vaccine is enough. And Evans hopes people fall in line.

"I would rather it be voluntary," she said. "I would hope everyone can just comply so we can get over this – because if not, we're going to be stuck here forever."

Meanwhile, the Chicago Department of Public Health said there are also already early signs that the current COVID-19 surge may be peaking in both the Midwest and Northeast. Cases are very high overall – with 324 per 100,000 residents throughout Cook County, but that figure is down from 338 last week.

The goal is to get back under 200 cases per 100,000 residents per week.

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