Chicago sees COVID cases drop by 60% in schools, health officials say

The city’s health commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady, wearing a white sweater and red beaded necklace, provides COVID-19 case data and vaccinations on Aug. 12, 2021.
Chicago Public Schools is seeing a steep decline in COVID-19 cases across the district, but cases remain above pre-omicron levels, Dr. Allison Arwady, the city’s health commissioner said. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune / Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Chicago Public Schools is seeing a steep decline in COVID-19 cases across the district – in line with a similar drop seen across the city – but cases remain above pre-omicron levels, health officials said Tuesday.

That decline means far fewer students are in quarantine and missing school. Health officials said they were still concerned about risks to students at schools where vaccination rates are the lowest.

Last week, CPS reported that 439 students and 121 staff members tested positive, a drop of about 60% compared to two weeks ago, when 1,068 students and 284 staff tested positive for the week of Jan. 23, Dr. Allison Arwady, the city’s health commissioner, said at a weekly COVID-19 press conference.

“The case rates that we see in our schools, whether that’s CPS, whether that’s the Archdiocese, whether that’s day care, they reflect what we see in the city of Chicago,” Arwady said. “We do not see being in schools adding additional significant risk.” 

The district saw cases peak with 1,688 students and 1,117 staff test positive the week starting Jan. 9, data shows.

Meanwhile, the district increased COVID testing capacity to over 64,400 tests across the district last week, Arwady said.

CPS had a positivity rate of less than a percentage, compared to the city’s 2% positivity rate, according to the latest figures.

Amid the COVID-19 case decline, the district has also seen a decrease in the number of students and staff being quarantined or isolated. On Feb. 13, 155 staff and 2,873 students were isolated, according to the district’s latest figures.

The numbers are a sharp decline after a districtwide peak on Jan. 22, when 968 staff and 22,057 were quarantined, data shows.

The district shortened the quarantine period for unvaccinated close contacts from 10 to five days as of Feb. 1.

While vaccine uptake has increased across all age groups in the city, Arwady expressed concerns about the low vaccination rate among school-age children.

About 49.3% of 5- to 11-year-olds in the city have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine, and 38% are fully vaccinated, compared with the national average where 32% of the age group have received one dose, and 24% are fully vaccinated, data shows.

About 80% of 12- to 17-year-olds in the city have received one dose, while 68% are fully vaccinated. Those numbers eclipse national averages where about 67% of the age group have gotten one dose, and 56% are fully vaccinated, according to the latest figures.

 But Chicago Public Schools vaccination uptake trails city numbers. About 22% of 5- to 11-year-olds are fully vaccinated, and about 34% have at least one shot, while about 53% of 12- to 17-year-olds are fully vaccinated and 60% had at least one dose, according to CPS.

Asked about a Chalkbeat report showing that 22% of 5- to 11-year-olds at CPS are fully vaccinated, Arwady declined to comment on the specific numbers. But she acknowledged that Chicago Public Schools vaccination numbers were “lower than the city average.” 

Arwady said she was “reasonably pleased” with current uptake, which is similar to national averages.

Still, the health commissioner acknowledged the wide range of vaccine uptake, saying that children at schools with only 20% of the student body fully vaccinated were at  higher risk of contracting COVID compared to those at schools where 75% of students or higher were fully vaccinated.

Mitigation strategies such as mask-wearing in schools were particularly critical in campuses with low uptake, Arwady added.

The city’s health department, and school officials, will continue to monitor vaccination uptake and work with vaccine ambassadors to increase uptake in schools, Arwady said.

Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering K-12 schools. Contact Mauricio at mpena@chalkbeat.org.

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