Chicago’s public health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said Tuesday that she anticipates the city’s COVID-19 risk could jump from “low” to “medium” levels as early as Friday, following the raised risk levels in suburban Cook County last week.

But the increased risk level is not enough to trigger any new citywide mask mandates, she said. Last month, she suggested a medium level designation could lead to a reinstated mask mandate at Chicago Public Schools, but on Tuesday, said masks would be “strongly recommended” in schools, as well as around the city.

“If we move to medium, it’s not like the sky is falling,” Arwady said during her weekly Facebook livestreaming Q&A event. “There will be no major changes coming, we just want to put a brake on some of those transmissions. If and when we move to medium risk in Chicago, you will be seeing stronger recommendations around wearing masks indoors. You don’t need to avoid gatherings, but we will be asking you to put on a mask.”

Under the latest national guidelines, DuPage County moved to medium risk two weeks ago and last week Lake County moved to medium.

The city’s COVID-19 dashboard reveals Chicagoans being hospitalized with COVID-19 hasn’t been this low since July 2021. Arwady said variant surveillance has stepped up, but omicron is still the most prevalent variant in the Midwest and U.S. No new variant has emerged, she added.

“We would get to a medium COVID-19 community level either with a significant increase in cases or a noted impact on our health system and to get to ‘high’ you have to both see a lot of cases and big impact on the health system,” Arwady said.

Arwady said only at high risk will a requirement “in a legal mandate kind of way” be put in place.

“When we get into medium for me, it’s like a yellow traffic light a little bit — it says cases are going up, nothing of huge alarm, but there is more risk,” she said. “I want people to understand when that risk goes up, you want to be more careful.”

She added: “We are only planning to put mask requirements in place at a high-risk level. I always put a caveat on that. I say, if we were to get a new variant of concern emerging; if we were to see a major change in viral transmission dynamics, we may need to be more conservative. But in the absence of that, assuming that COVID continues to behave in the way it’s been behaving we would not mandate masking or vaccines for high risk settings unless we were at a high level per CDC.”

CPS reiterated Tuesday that it’s strongly encouraging everyone to mask up in its schools and will continue to follow CDC guidance on masks. In its ongoing dispute with the Chicago Teachers Union over masking, CPS has noted that the CDC is now recommending universal indoor masking in schools where the community transmission level is high.

Chicago’s COVID-19 rate remains slightly under 200 new weekly cases per 100,000 residents, which is the general benchmark to be considered “medium” risk under the CDC’s metric, though hospitalizations can also be a factor.

For Illinois, the statewide seven-day case rate as of Tuesday is 212, up from 193 Friday.

Chicago Tribune’s Dan Petrella contributed.

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