What COVID taught Chicago and Illinois health officials

Today’s briefing took place on the three-year anniversary of the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Chicago, which was the second confirmed case nationwide at the time. As in many other cities, Chicago’s health department sprang into action, providing guidance on isolation and social distancing, setting up drive-thru testing, then designating the United Center as a vaccine site and even bringing vaccines directly to homes. of people.

“My biggest thought as I look back on three years is to be so thankful for how much Chicago has come together around COVID,” Arwady said.

Three years since the first confirmed case, COVID cases and deaths have dropped significantly in Chicago since the first two years of the pandemic. The city is also now more than a year away from the last big COVID surge: the omicron wave of 2022. As of January 19, Chicago’s risk of COVID transmission was at a medium level. As the holiday season ended, Arwady said she was pleased to see that Chicago did not experience a large increase in cases.

In May and June 2020, about 350 Chicagoans were dying each week from COVID-19, Arwady said. Now about one Chicagoan a day dies from the virus.

Both Arwady and Vohra said that one of the main takeaways from their respective departments was to establish processes and channels to provide health information to the public on a regular basis. Before the pandemic, public health officials rarely made the news or spoke to the public. Now, Arwady hosts weekly briefings, where he answers questions from the public, and Dr. Geraldine Luna, CDPH’s medical director, hosts briefings in Spanish.

The CDPH website is also now much more user-friendly and posts easy-to-understand dashboards of COVID and other disease data. Regular communication was vital as there was a lot of misinformation circulating about COVID and the pandemic.

“So many lessons were learned,” says Vohra, who took over at IDPH last summer.

The pandemic has also pushed health departments to refocus on addressing health disparities in Chicago and throughout Illinois, Arwady and Vohra said. Data shows that COVID cases have wreaked havoc in many Black and Latino communities, and these communities are often the least vaccinated.

Managing COVID also helped CDPH and IDPH learn techniques to control the spread of other illnesses, such as the common cold and flu.

“It’s really about infection control,” Arwady said, adding that mask-wearing and isolation helped mitigate other infectious diseases. “That’s the best practice for any disease.”

Chicago’s wastewater surveillance program, which helped the city predict spikes and track variants of COVID, is now also used to track flu cases.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in the first two years, CDPH and other health departments across the country received a bolus of funds to help respond to COVID. That funding helped modernize health departments as they were able to hire more workers, upgrade technology and disease tracking systems, and put in place additional infrastructure to quickly respond to changing variants. It also revealed what was possible when public health departments had more support, Arwady said.

But with the expected end of the federal COVID emergency designation and decreased federal funding, CDPH, like other health departments, will be forced to return to operating on a much smaller budget.

“I’m quite concerned looking ahead at the funding cliff that is looming,” Arwady said.

CDPH’s budget surpassed $1 billion in 2022, thanks to more than $775 million in federal grants funneled to the agency to address the pandemic. But in 2023, when some of those grants expire, the CDPH budget is expected to shrink. Now the agency faces an especially steep funding cliff in the coming years, with the bulk of its budget set to disappear by 2026.

At that point, CDPH may have to “dismantle” some of the services that had been built during the pandemic, Arwady said.