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When will Illinois’ mask mandate end? COVID-19 cases are no longer dropping, leaving endgame uncertain

Two weeks ago, an optimistic Gov. J.B. Pritzker floated the idea of lifting much of his mask mandate by the holidays.

But the latest COVID-19 data has not kept improving as winter approaches, and on Tuesday Pritzker offered a more sober assessment.

“New hospitalizations are flat. That is not a good sign. That’s not what’s happened in previous dips from surges,” Pritzker said after getting his coronavirus booster shot in Chicago. “We went down for a while here, but now we’ve leveled out at a level that is much higher than the summer.”

While the numbers of new cases and hospitalizations are well below their during the recent surge, they remain far above where they were early this summer, and the trends recently have stopped dropping.

The Pritzker administration has yet to say how low the metrics need to go before he’d lift the requirement for masks at indoor public settings, and the latest trends add to the murkiness surrounding the endgame of a now 10-week-old mandate put in place after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adopted new guidelines on masks.

At the time the mandate was issued, Pritzker said all Illinoisans needed to mask up to stop the more contagious Delta variant from spreading so rapidly that hospitals would be overwhelmed.

Illinois hospitals are not faced with that possibility right now, but Chicago-area hospital leaders say caseloads remain far from ideal, and there remains uncertainty about the course the pandemic might take as more kids are vaccinated but colder weather sends more people indoors.

“We are undoubtedly in a better place than we were a month ago,” said Dr. Jorge Parada, Loyola Medicine’s regional director for infection prevention and control. “That said, the fact that we’re better than a disaster doesn’t mean we’re in a good place.”

When Pritzker imposed the latest indoor mask mandate in late August, he cited the rapid uptick in COVID-19 hospitalizations that left Illinois “running out of time as our hospitals run out of beds.”

Running out of beds is a worst-case scenario in a pandemic because it means that care stretched thin not only for those sick from the virus but also for those having other medical emergencies, from heart attacks to strokes.

By the time the mask mandate was reimposed in Illinois, more than four times as many hospital beds were filled with COVID-19 patients as had been the case just two months earlier.

The good news: The average number of people hospitalized each day with COVID-19 has dropped by nearly half from the last surge’s peak of above 2,300, to around 1,200.

The bad news: The hospitalization numbers stopped dropping a week ago and remain at triple they were in July, when the number was about 400. During the late summer surge, most of the state’s regions had fewer than 20% of their ICU beds available, a bench mark of concern under guidelines set by the Pritzker administration. The state’s southern region ultimately ran out of ICU beds in mid-September, something that hadn’t happened in any region of the state […]

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