According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID cases and hospitalizations threaten to push several Chicago-area counties, including Cook County, into the highest COVID alert level in the coming weeks.

That data, released Thursday afternoon, suggests that several Chicago-area counties could potentially soon reach “high community levels” of COVID-19, which would then prompt the CDC to recommend a variety of mitigation strategies to address the increase curb metrics.

Even if certain counties hit that “high community level” threshold, it may not necessarily mean an automatic return to COVID mitigations, including a mask bid.

Here’s what we know.

What is considered “high community level” of COVID?

According to CDC guidelines, the “community level” of COVID in an area is determined by three metrics: its new weekly COVID cases per 100,000 population, its new weekly hospital admissions per 100,000 population, and the percentage of hospital beds occupied by COVID patients.

Every county within the NBC 5 viewing area is already recording at least 200 or more new weekly COVID cases per 100,000 residents, pushing those areas into a “middle community tier” of virus categorization.

In this situation, there are two metric thresholds that can be reached that would place these counties at a “high community level” of COVID. One is when the county has 10 or more weekly hospitalizations per 100,000 population, or when 10% or more of its hospital beds are occupied by COVID patients.

What the data tells us

The CDC compiles its hospitalization data not only based on the county that a hospital is in, but also based on what other counties that hospital may serve.

As a result, Cook, DuPage, Lake and McHenry counties are all very close to moving up to the “high community level” of COVID. These four counties combined record 9.8 new weekly hospitalizations per 100,000 residents, according to CDC data.

In Kankakee County, that number currently stands at 8.8 new admissions per 100,000 people, while in DeKalb, Kane, and Kendall counties, the number has risen to 8.1 new admissions.

As a result, those eight counties could soon join Illinois’ eight other counties that have already reached “high community levels” of the virus.

The director of the center, Dr. Rochelle Walensky accepted a panel’s recommendation on Thursday.

Here’s what the CDC recommends for “high community level” areas

So what does the CDC recommend for individuals when their area hits the “high community level” threshold?

First, the CDC recommends that all residents of these counties, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks indoors.

Residents who are immunocompromised, or those living with residents who are, are encouraged to consider additional steps to protect themselves and loved ones, including “avoiding non-essential indoor activities.”

It is also recommended that these residents speak to their healthcare providers about additional preventive measures or to inquire about their eligibility for COVID antivirals or monoclonal antibodies in the event of COVID infection.

As Chicago transitions from a “low” to a “moderate” level of COVID risk, Dr. Chicago Department of Health Commissioner Allison Arwady shared her recommendations regarding covering indoors and eating in restaurants and bars.

So would a return to the “high community level” mean a mask requirement?

At the state level, it doesn’t look like a county moving to the high community level category will return a mask mandate.

While returning a mandate has not been ruled out by Chicago health officials, Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, observes a different metric to determine whether mandates are being returned.

“While our hospital numbers remain as good as they are, twice as many Chicagoans would need to be hospitalized to have mandates to think about,” she said.

CDPH said even if the region goes into a higher alert level, “the City of Chicago would not immediately reinstate an indoor mask mandate because severe episodes remain relatively rare in Chicago and the burden of COVID-19 in our local hospitals remains low.”

While Cook County is seeing a rapid increase in COVID hospitalizations, the percentage of staffed beds currently occupied by COVID patients remains well below the “high” threshold, which currently stands at 3%.

In the city of Chicago itself, the weekly hospitalization rate per 100,000 residents is currently 6.3, well below the level for the rest of the borough.

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