Masks off by holidays? Pritzker likely to take back his ‘gift’

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker in October teased Illinoisans that they could see indoor mask mandates lifted before the holidays, but a surge in new cases makes it unlikely he will follow through.

Six states have mask mandates in effect for residents regardless of their vaccination status, with Illinois the only one east of the Mississippi. Some Illinois politicians are questioning why Pritzker’s mandate is needed if the state is recording as many or more infections as states without mandates.

Illinois public health officials reported a startling resurgence in new COVID-19 cases statewide, culminating in the year’s highest daily total of new cases Dec. 2. Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said a maskless holiday is probably not going to happen.

“As we’ve moved indoors, we haven’t maybe taken our masks indoors with us. So a lot of unmasked indoor gatherings are likely part of the problem,” Ezike said. “Of course, COVID is so complicated. It’s been throwing us curveball after curveball.”

IDPH reported a staggering 11,524 newly diagnosed COVID-19 cases Dec. 2 – nearly twice as high as any other day in the past 10 months. The record comes after families gathered for the Thanksgiving holiday.

The spike drove up the 7-day average to 5,313 new cases per day this week. A more than 135% jump over rates reported during the same period in previous month.

Similarly, the state has seen coronavirus hospitalization rates higher than any point since last winter. But Illinois is not the only Midwest state seeing new case rates on the rise, leading Chicago’s top doctor to designate the region the “current COVID hot spot.”

Wisconsin reported the highest number of new cases per 100,000 people in the nation Dec. 3 at 106.3, according to Johns Hopkins data.

Minnesota and Missouri reported rates of 95.39 and 84.89 respectively with Illinois seeing the third-highest new case count in the Midwest at 90.24.

Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady specified more than 97% of these new cases, hospitalizations and deaths are among the unvaccinated.

Even as COVID-19 cases have increased in recent weeks, some Illinois leaders, including mayors and state lawmakers, have renewed calls on Pritzker to lift his order to wear a mask indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

They point out that Illinois is now the only state east of the Mississippi with a mask mandate, and yet case positivity trends continue to parallel those reported by Midwest neighbors without the restriction.

“Fact: Illinois is the only Midwestern state that currently requires a mask, and yet as of today, we are no better off than the surrounding states,” said Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico. “In my view, based on the CDC information and the minimal, if any, impact of COVID mitigation strategies on actual results.”

Others are pushing for stricter statewide mitigations as officials prepare to combat the spread of the omicron variant, even calling for another statewide shutdown. Omicron appeared Dec. 1 in California and has since been detected in four more states: Minnesota, Hawaii, New York and Colorado.

In early November, Pritzker said he and IDPH doctors are evaluating the masking decision “really every day.”

“We look at the numbers, I talk to the doctors at IDPH, especially [IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike], and what we’re trying to evaluate is: are the hospitalization numbers, for example, increasing, decreasing, staying the same?” Pritzker said. “We want them to decrease. They’re not currently, just to be clear.”

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