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This Illinois health official is cautiously optimistic about holiday gatherings this year

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Chicago public health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady cast a hopeful but cautious eye Tuesday toward on this winter’s holiday season as the latest COVID-19 wave driven by the delta variant shows signs of ebbing.

Though coronavirus in the U.S. has become dominated by that more contagious variant, the introduction of vaccines means Chicago is unlikely to face a cold-weather surge of COVID-19 as it did a year ago, Arwady said during a Facebook Live session. But that doesn’t mean the tendency for more indoor gatherings won’t throw in a wrench in the city’s progress against the virus, she added.

“I’m not anticipating, you know, seeing an enormous surge like (last year), but I am a little worried,” Arwady said. “We know there’s a reason that influenza season happens every late fall and winter here, and we could see that with COVID. I am hoping not, right? But I cannot guarantee for sure.”

Also on Tuesday, one state was removed from Chicago’s travel advisory, which lists places in the U.S. where unvaccinated people should take extra COVID-19 precautions when visiting, officials said.

Connecticut is now off the list of states from which travelers who are not fully vaccinated are asked to quarantine upon return to Chicago, and to take COVID-19 tests before and after, Arwady said.

“Most of the country is still quite deep in the delta surge,” Arwady said about the more contagious variant of the coronavirus. But she noted the country is “slowly but surely making progress.”

Part of why Arwady is more confident about this upcoming winter than last year’s is because of improving vaccination rates across the city, she said. So — for now — it appears holiday celebrations can be tentatively planned.

“If we continue to see cases like at the rate where we are right now, and especially ... if everybody’s vaccinated and you’re gathering, go for it, in my opinion,” Arwady said. “I know it’s hard to not have that full answer, but it wouldn’t be responsible of me to say, ‘I know what’s going to be happening for sure at the end of November or at the end of December.’ We’ll have a better sense in early November.”

As for children ages 5 to 11, who cannot yet get vaccinated, December holidays look more promising than Thanksgiving, Arwady said. She noted federal agencies are planning to begin the Pfizer vaccine approval process for that age group in mid-October, with the earliest inoculations possibly starting early November.

But because the Pfizer vaccine requires two shots plus a two-week period for full immunity, those children will likely just miss the window to be protected enough for Thanksgiving, she said.

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“Go ahead and make some tentative plans would be what I would say, but recognize that it’s possible guidance could have to shift,” Arwady said about the holidays.

Arwady’s remarks come as the city’s latest data show a seven-day rolling average of 355 daily cases and a 2.3% positivity rate. The caseload dipping below 400 cases is a good sign, but the city has not yet rolled back an indoor mask mandate implemented during an earlier summer surge driven by the delta variant.

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Still, Chicago is in a far better position than it was last October, when Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered an indoor dining ban for the city, much to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s displeasure.

Meanwhile, Tuesday’s change the Chicago’s travel advisory means there are now 47 states and three territories under Chicago’s travel advisory. California and Puerto Rico are the only other areas not subject to the recommended COVID-19 mitigations for unvaccinated travelers. Washington, D.C., Massachusetts and Louisiana may get off the list within two weeks.

The most updated guidance from the city advised unvaccinated people get tested one to three days before leaving for their trip. Upon return, they should get a COVID-19 test within three to five days as well as quarantine for seven days. If they choose not to get tested, they should quarantine for 10 days.

States get on the list by surpassing 15 daily COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents, but Illinois is not subject to the advisory because the city does not want to restrict intrastate travel.

Chicago itself is seeing 13.1 daily cases per 100,000 residents, while Illinois is at 16.1 cases, meaning both are faring better than the country overall.


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