As fall comes to Chicago, the city — including the Hyde Park area — is experiencing a new surge of coronavirus cases, one that University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC) lead epidemiologist Emily Landon thinks will persist for some time.
"Here's the thing: as the air gets cooler, it gets drier. Less moisture can be held in colder air, and you know the difference. You can tell that it's drier than it was a month ago. And that dry air actually makes COVID more infectious," said Landon in an interview.
The citywide positivity rate for COVID tests was 7.4% as of Oct. 25, according to the city's data portal. That's up from 5.8% for the previous week.
In Zip Code 60637, for instance, which covers southern Hyde Park, southern Washington Park and Woodlawn, there were 42 confirmed cases out of 505 people tested. That's an 8.3% positivity rate, up from a 6% positivity rate the week before and a 2.3% positivity rate the week before that.
"I hope we don't see numbers like we did in the spring, and my personal guess — and this is a guess, crystal ball-wise — is that we'll have a pretty intense ramp-up to a new plateau level (of cases)," Landon said. "I think it could it could stay high for a good, long time, because I think the factors that are leading to the current situation aren't likely to abate anytime soon. People are indoors more, people are still sick and tired of COVID. We've got the holidays coming up, which is like a really big transmission opportunity."
Corresponding with the rapid local rise of coronavirus cases, Landon confirmed that the UCMC has doubled the number of COVID-19 in-patients over the last couple of weeks, and she expects it to go higher. The hospital has more personal protective equipment, but it is not stockpiling it; the supply chains are strong, for testing equipment, too.
Still, Landon predicts that providers will continue caring for other patients, unlike during the first wave, and essential services will continue. People experiencing non-coronavirus emergency medical conditions will feel more comfortable seeking care at the hospital, as infection control protocols have profoundly improved since the spring.
"We can absolutely safely take care of anybody," she said.
"I think we've got a better understanding of how to protect each other and how to protect ourselves from patients and how to take care of patients," she said. "I think there's a lot in our favor this time around, but I do think it's going to be a really tough winter, and I think a lot of that is going to come down to whether or not we can all get on the same page and change our behavior."
While Landon acknowledged Chicago's reasonably good efforts at masking and social distancing, she said Mayor Lori Lightfoot's early-October decision to allow some indoor drinking at bars lead to coronavirus patients who reported having gone to one. (On Tuesday afternoon, Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered that bars and restaurants could no longer allow indoor service as of Friday.)
She pointed to a nationwide Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey study of people who had taken coronavirus tests — it found that people who eventually tested positive were often those who also ate indoors in restaurants and frequented bars; there was a statistically insignificant trend towards working out at a gym ("an experimental activity," in her opinion).
"I think that people think that they are safe if they are open, and I think certainly there are some people who want to do things no matter whether or not they're safe, but there are a lot of other people who think that if it's open then it must be safe," she said. "And that is probably not the right conclusion to draw."
In a change from the spring, Landon said we now know that shopping at retail establishments or supermarkets is reasonably safe, so long as masks and social distancing are maintained. She noted that there have been no documented COVID-19 outbreaks traced to grocery stores.
"In the beginning, we had to have a lockdown because we didn't know how to control the virus. We didn't know that fabric masks were going to be effective. We didn't have enough medical masks. And we didn't know how much distance you needed. We didn't understand the importance or non-importance of surface-cleaning and whether or not we were going to be able to do that. We didn't know how quickly it was going to spread through our communities," she said.
While having friends over six feet apart for back-yard summer barbecues was one thing, wintertime indoor dinner parties are inadvisable, she said. Even if six feet are maintained, air does not circulate well indoors and becomes saturated with aerosols.
"We should be able to do most things," she said, nevertheless, recommending board games and everything else beyond eating or drinking. "I would say anything that doesn't involve taking your mask off inside is fair game. I would say with gyms, people should be cautious. You want to wear your mask at the gym; you want other people to wear their masks at the gym."
"We knew this surge was going to come, and we're prepared to weather it," she said. "I think that in Illinois, people characterize it as being sort of draconian … but the reality is that that's what's protecting us, and we can be really confident that we can count on our elected officials to do what they can to protect us."
"The most important thing to do is to acknowledge that we're sick and tired of it, and then find a way to power through, because we have to buckle down. This is the time to look for your inner grit and just say, 'I'm going to look through this, because there's going to be a light at the end of this tunnel.'"