September 20, 2021

As DuPage, McHenry reach ‘substantial’ risk level, mask alert called ‘inevitable’ in suburbs

“The reason we all have to mask now is largely because of unvaccinated people,” doctor says

Medical experts say it’s only a matter of time before suburban COVID-19 transmission rises to the level at which face coverings are advised in all public indoor locations.

DuPage and McHenry counties joined Will County Wednesday with enough disease spread to trigger the universal indoor mask-wearing advice set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the day before. But it’s “inevitable” that will happen in the rest of the suburbs and Chicago, one doctor says.

“It is absolutely inevitable that our cases are going to be high enough we’ll all hit that metric pretty soon,” said Dr. Emily Landon, head of the University of Chicago’s infectious disease prevention and control program. “But I don’t think the Chicago area is going to see near the problem we’re seeing in other states because the vaccination rate is pretty good here.”

DuPage, McHenry and Will counties are considered a “substantial” risk for contracting COVID-19, with more than 50 new cases of the disease diagnosed for every 100,000 people over the past week, according to CDC metrics. The other suburban counties and Chicago area are at a “moderate” risk.

However, Cook, Kane and Lake counties are reporting more than 40 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past week, and those figures have rapidly escalated throughout July.

People in counties with substantial or high risk -- that latter category triggered by more than 100 cases per 100,000 people for a week-- should wear masks at indoor venues even if they’re vaccinated, the CDC recommended Tuesday after new data showed how much more transmissible the delta variant of COVID-19 has become.

“But they also added the caveat that it’s reasonable to just wear a mask regardless of the level of transmission in the area,” said Dr. Temitope Oyedele, an infectious diseases professor at Cook County Health. “I know some people are probably frustrated by the guidance going back and forth, but I think it’s important to realize the CDC is doing this based on the evidence from researching the delta variant.”

The delta variant has quickly become the dominant strain in Illinois and the U.S. as cases once again surge throughout most of the country, particularly in states with low vaccination rates.

In Illinois, 56.2% of those 12 and older are fully vaccinated, while 72% have received at least one dose the Illinois Department of Public Health reports.

On Wednesday, IDPH figures showed that 80 of the 89 variant strains identified through genomic sequencing in Illinois over the past two days were delta.

“Delta is nasty,” Landon said. “Delta took advantage of us.”

Medical experts note both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals are at risk of catching the delta variant, but unvaccinated individuals are much more likely to suffer the worst effects of the disease.

IDPH officials say the delta variant is responsible for the recent surge of cases in Illinois that on Wednesday saw 2,082 more infections diagnosed, as well as six more deaths.

That brings the state’s death toll from COVID-19 to 23,420 since the onset of the pandemic, while 1,415,572 Illinois residents have been infected, according to the IDPH.

Of those new cases, 667 -- less than one-third -- were residents of suburban Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties, IDPH records show.

The seven-day case positivity rates in Kane, McHenry and Will counties are at or above the current statewide rate of 4%, according to IDPH figures. Case positivity shows the level of infection growth within a certain population. A month ago, most counties’ rates were below 1%.

Currently, the only place to find out the transmission risk level of your county is at the CDC’s COVID-19 data tracker website at cdc.gov. But IDPH officials said they are working on making that information available on the state’s website, too.

“If you have a hard time finding information about the transmission level in your county, it’s reasonable to just wear a mask,” Oyedele advised.

The CDC’s guidance on masks in schools, which advises that everyone wear a mask indoors regardless of vaccination status, has some suburban school districts rethinking recent policy decisions to make masks optional.

Administrators at Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200, St. Charles Unit District 303 and Arlington Heights Elementary District 25 all alerted parents that they are reconsidering mask requirements in light of the CDC’s guidance.

Elgin Area School District U-46 Superintendent Tony Sanders also notified parents that masks must be worn “in all schools and departments by employees, students, and visitors -- regardless of vaccination status -- within all U-46 buildings” to start the school year.

Landon said it might be time to introduce more consequences for those who won’t get vaccinated.

“The reason we all have to mask now is largely because of unvaccinated people,” she said. “You can max out on carrots, but eventually you’re going to need the stick. Organizations, places, businesses and other locations should tell them, ‘Enough is enough and we’re not going to let you in unless you’re vaccinated.’ And that’s honestly how it should be. I think it’s reasonable for businesses to say you can’t come here unless you’re vaccinated.”

Another 27,155 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine were administered statewide, IDPH officials reported Wednesday. That means over the past seven days, vaccine providers in Illinois are administering an average of 17,982 doses daily.

All told, providers in Illinois have administered 14,685,385 doses of the vaccine since the rollout began in mid-December, according to Illinois Department of Public Health figures.

Hospitals in Illinois are treating 857 COVID-19 patients, 184 of whom are in intensive care.