What looser COVID-19 safety guidelines could look like

Looser quarantine restrictions for those exposed to COVID-19 and de-emphasizing social distancing could be part of updated safety recommendations expected soon from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Federal health officials met with educators and medical experts recently to discuss easing some of the CDC's guidance aimed at controlling the spread of the virus in communities and schools, according to a CNN report earlier this week.

Among the potential changes is a proposal to no longer require someone exposed to the virus to quarantine for five days if they remain asymptomatic. Instead, they could remain in work or school settings immediately after exposure as long as they wear a mask and test negative at least five days later.

“I think that's reasonable, but schools really need to ensure those kids remain masked and are kept away from other kids when unmasked,” said Dr. Emily Landon, head of the University of Chicago's infectious disease prevention and control program. “Without the masking part, unvaccinated and exposed kids pose a big risk to the other kids.”

The CDC might also de-emphasize the 6-foot social distancing guideline that has been in place since the outset of the pandemic, the report noted.

Landon said she worries the looser guidelines may give the public the impression the pandemic is dying down.

“At this point in the pandemic, I think it's appropriate to take measures that allow people who want to avoid getting COVID to be able to avoid getting COVID,” she said. “COVID isn't done with us yet.”

In fact, Illinois Department of Public Health officials reported Friday that while COVID-19 hospitalizations dipped 3.2% from last week, there are still 1,413 patients being treated for the disease in hospitals statewide, 140 of whom are in ICU beds.

“We're still treating those patients at a higher rate, though it's now mainly the elderly and immunocompromised,” said Dr. Jonathan Pinsky, medical director of infection control and prevention at Edward Hospital in Naperville. “Severe respiratory issues are more rare now. It's mainly those with fevers and dehydration, and complications from those symptoms.”

Pinsky said the COVID-19 vaccines “still work to protect you from the most severe complications” of the virus.

The CDC is reporting 69.3% of Illinois' 12.8 million residents are fully vaccinated, while 54.3% of those individuals have received a booster dose as well. Another 34.9% of those eligible for a second booster dose have received it, records show.

In July, 224 COVID-19 deaths were reported in Illinois, IDPH figures show. That's down from 324 the month prior, and the third-lowest total for a full month since the outset of the pandemic more than two years ago.

Over the past week, though, deaths climbed again. Another 59 COVID-related deaths were reported since July 29, IDPH officials said. The week prior, 48 Illinoisans died of COVID.

The state's death toll from COVID-19 now stands at 34,416.

IDPH officials also reported 30,762 new cases last week as well. State health officials have recorded 3,594,415 COVID-19 infections in Illinois residents throughout the pandemic.

Pinsky said an uptick in cases from the highly contagious omicron subvariants will lead to an eventual increase in hospitalizations and deaths. He recommended anti-viral treatments like Paxlovid for anyone eligible who becomes infected.

“Most of our patients getting admitted did not take Paxlovid,” he said. “In fact, it's rare for someone who was treated with Paxlovid to be admitted.”

The CDC is also reporting that 59 Illinois counties, including Cook County and the five surrounding suburban collar counties, are listed at a high community level for risk of COVID-19 transmission. That means more than 200 new cases for every 100,000 residents were reported in those counties in the past week, and hospitalizations are climbing in those areas as well.

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