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The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Chicago area hospitals maintain mask mandates amid spread of respiratory illnesses

Illustration by Beatrice Villaflor
Contagious respiratory illnesses like COVID-19, influenza and RSV spread throughout the United States in December.

As contagious respiratory illnesses — particularly COVID-19, influenza and RSV — began spreading this winter season, several healthcare facilities in Evanston and the Chicago area reinstated their mask mandates starting at the end of December. 

The Illinois Department of Public Health recommended universal masking at healthcare facilities in counties with high levels of COVID-19 hospitalizations or respiratory illness transmissions. 

Endeavor Health, which includes NorthShore University Health System’s Evanston Hospital, required masks for people with respiratory illness symptoms beginning Dec. 26. Cook County Health began requiring masks for all staff, patients and visitors in waiting rooms and exam rooms that same day. Rush University System for Health instituted a similar mandate Jan. 2. Northwestern Medicine requires masks for patients with respiratory symptoms and upon request in patient rooms. 

“We’re thinking about who we are trying to protect, and that tends to be our really vulnerable patients, and we consider patients that are in the hospital to be one of those vulnerable populations,” said Dr. Jennifer Grant, an infectious disease physician with Endeavor Health. 

According to data from the Cook County Department of Public Health, the number of reported COVID-19 cases increased through December 2023, peaking at about 2,300 cases the week of Dec. 23.

By Jan. 5, the IDPH reported flu activity was increasing to levels similar to winter 2020, while RSV activity was stabilizing.  

“This year was more similar to a pre-pandemic rate in terms of RSV and influenza,” said Dr. Sharon Welbel, director of infection control and hospital epidemiology at Cook County Health. “And then, of course, we have COVID, which really isn’t seasonal. The numbers do go up and down during seasons, largely because people are gathered more inside than they are outside.” 

As of Jan. 23, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classified Illinois as having a low activity level for respiratory illness. The number of reported COVID-19 cases has declined each subsequent week since Dec. 23, according to Cook County data. IDPH data shows hospital admissions for COVID-19, the flu and RSV trending down from Jan. 6 to Jan. 13. 

However, Dr. John Segreti, medical director of infection control and prevention at RUSH, said it was too soon to reduce his health system’s mask mandates. 

“As we've seen in the past, the numbers can start to come down and then go up again,” Segreti said. “So until we’re satisfied that the numbers are coming down and staying down, we won’t be changing our mask recommendations.” 

For areas with medium or high COVID-19 hospitalization rates, the CDC recommends high-quality masks for people at high risk of getting very sick and self-testing for those who have come into contact with someone at high risk. Anyone can choose to mask anytime. 

The CDC suggests everyone six months and older receive an influenza vaccine annually as well as the updated COVID-19 vaccine for 2023-24. As of Jan. 6, about 27.5% of Illinois adults had received the updated COVID-19 vaccine. 

“I highly recommend being vaccinated because we know from a lot of data that they are safe and effective,” Welbel said. 

Email: [email protected]

X: @edwardsimoncruz

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