Mask mandates are over, but 'we have every reason to expect another surge,' experts warn

  • Even as COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to plunge, local health officials remain worried about the next surge in cases that could overload suburban health care systems.

    Even as COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to plunge, local health officials remain worried about the next surge in cases that could overload suburban health care systems. Courtesy of Elmhurst Hospital

 
 
Updated 3/10/2022 8:56 AM

COVID-19 infections are petering out at about the same rate as most indoor masking requirements throughout the country.

And while Illinois lifted its masking requirements 10 days ago in most settings, health experts agree it doesn't mean the pandemic has ended along with those safety mitigations.

 

"It's hard to say what will happen next, because we've all been a little surprised with a lot of what has happened during this," said Dr. Tom Oryszczak, executive vice president and chief medical officer at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights. "I can't say with any degree of confidence what I think is likely to happen next at this point."

Hospitalizations -- which have become the chief metric the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is measuring COVID-19 community risk levels -- continue to decline sharply. But hospital officials note that we've seen that happen before only to watch hospital beds fill up again.

"At this rate, we would expect to continue to go down further, but we don't know the unexpected," said Dr. Jonathan Pinsky, medical director of infection control and prevention at Edward Hospital in Naperville. "Could there be clusters of cases, especially because of no mask requirement? I can't predict how much of that is going to have an impact."

Currently, Edward Hospital is treating just seven COVID-19 patients, the fewest since July. Statewide, fewer than 700 patients are hospitalized with the virus, the first time that's happened since July 23, according to Illinois Department of Public Health records.

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CDC officials cited increased vaccination rates as well as greater access to therapeutics and preventive medications as their reason for making hospitalizations the top metric to monitor nationwide.

Still, some public health officials worry that relying so much on hospital data to make mitigation decisions is shortsighted. That's because COVID-19 hospitalizations, as a lagging indicator, traditionally begin to rise about two weeks after infections, they argue.

"The new CDC guidelines were right to 'move the goal posts' after such a big surge where so many were recently sick," said Dr. Emily Landon, head of the University of Chicago's infectious disease prevention and control program. "However, we have every reason to expect another surge in the future. The new CDC recommendations are only meant to protect health care from collapsing."

Oryszczak said case counts remain the best indicator of a hospital's ebbs and flows of patients.

"Some of the issue with just taking into account hospitalizations is that it means it's been a couple weeks since exposure," he said. "It's an important metric if you don't want to overload hospitals, but we still have to use data that is a little more predictive."

All the health officials agree that individuals should wear masks whenever there is any concern for safety, not just because the CDC said the area isn't considered high-risk.

"Individuals should be aware that this new (CDC) guidance isn't meant to protect them individually, and they should remain watchful if a new variant or surge is expected," Landon said.

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