Parades, revelry, and community — all of it was evident this past weekend to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day — a holiday postponed in various ways in the Chicago area since the pandemic began.
On Tuesday, two years since the first coronavirus death of an Illinois resident — retired nurse Patricia Frieson, of the Auburn Gresham neighborhood — Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Dr. Allison Arwady, head of the city’s Department of Public Health came together to say thanks to Chicagoans who made sacrifices and helped others during COVID-19.
“You can see a lot of the country is looking green, at low risk,” Arwady said. “Chicago, Cook County, northern Illinois have been green all along, but we’ve been seeing improvements in areas around us. We’re at 76.9%; our goal was 77% of all Chicagoans having gotten at least a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine … those over 5, almost 82% got a first dose. Everyday is good progress.”
Arwady is proud of that progress. Since Chicago fully reopened in June 2021, the city hasn’t needed to close anything down, pull a permit, or put a capacity restriction in place, she said.
“In August, the city did put an indoor mask requirement back in place that helped us stay open, that helped limit risk and with the omicron surge … we put the proof of vaccination in place for certain public spaces,” Arwady said. “We were able to lift all restrictions, and we had a good summer, last summer. When a new variant came and we saw some issues, we put the masks back on. If a new variant comes, if we have issues we would do that again.”
Arwady said vaccines, boosters, widely available tests, and effective treatments have pushed us into a new phase of the pandemic, one that requires ongoing work to address the racial health disparities laid bare the last two years. While the vaccinated numbers of the Latino and white population are the same with 75% of both demographics having received at least one dose, only 61% of the Black population received one dose of the vaccine. The varying vaccination rates is why the omicron surge hit Black Chicago really hard in terms of hospitalizations and deaths, Arwady said.
“To date, we’ve lost 7,586 Chicagoans due to COVID-19 — that means families have been irreparably touched by the loss of loved ones as a result of their dying from this deadly virus,” Lightfoot said at the news conference.
Arwady said her team is closely watching the BA. 2 variant and virus surges around the globe. This comes after news that former President Barack Obama is suffering mild symptoms since testing positive for coronavirus, and Pfizer’s CEO saying a fourth dose of the COVID-19 vaccine will be necessary in order to maintain manageable levels of hospitalizations and mild infections.
“All risk is local,” Arwady added. “When any disease is surging in the world, how likely is it that someone will come to Chicago with that disease. We built that into our modeling. The focus moving forward: Continuing to work not just on vaccination, but all of the reasons that underlay differing vaccination rates, rebuilding or building trust in health care, in public health, in government and thinking about access in new ways, creative ways and recognizing that until in a long-term way we commit to having all Chicagoans have equal opportunities, we will not reach a healthy Chicago.
“I think back on the last two years with a lot of humility … but a lot of pride especially in the way Chicagoans stepped up.”