By Madeline Buckley and Angie Leventis Lourgos Chicago Tribune

Coronavirus cases in Chicago and Illinois are inching upward again, part of a nationwide pattern that is causing experts and officials to worry about another surge of the virus while cities and states race to vaccinate people as quickly as possible.

In Chicago, doctors see telling signs of a potential surge, including smaller outbreaks in some areas that they fear will coalesce into a bigger outbreak before most people are vaccinated. And Mayor Lori Lightfoot cited concern on Wednesday, pointing to a “quantum leap” in coronavirus numbers, and said Chicago won’t proceed with further reopening measures until numbers go down.

Still, as vaccines pick up, experts hope the inoculations will help lessen the uptick.

Chicago’s positivity rate as of Tuesday’s was 4.5%, an increase of over a percentage point compared with last week. The seven-day rolling average of cases went up to 498 in that same period, which was up 37% from the week prior.

Illinois public health officials announced 2,592 new cases on Wednesday, with a preliminary seven-day statewide positivity rate of 3.9%, up from 3.3% the week before.

Meanwhile, nearly 17% of Illinois residents are fully vaccinated, according to the state’s department of health.

“It’s the tortoise and the hare race,” said Dr. Emily Landon, an epidemiologist at the University of Chicago School of Medicine. “The vaccine is the tortoise, and we know it’s going to win eventually. But how far is the hare going to get?”

The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grew emotional on Monday when speaking about a potential influx of cases, telling reporters: “I’m going to lose the script, and I’m going to reflect on the recurring feeling I have of impending doom.”

The director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said there is hope for the future, but asked people to continue wearing masks and social distancing. President Joe Biden has also asked governors who revoked their states’ mask mandates to reinstate the protective measure.

“But right now, I’m scared,” Walensky said.

Locally, doctors say the increase is likely a combination of reduced restrictions, particularly for bars and restaurants, increased travel for spring break and the spread of more contagious variants. People may also feel more comfortable going out because many in more vulnerable populations in the area are being vaccinated. The upcoming Easter holiday may contribute as well.

“We know the recipe for a surge,” said Dr. Khalilah Gates, a pulmonary and critical care specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “It is traveling, vacationing, gathering.”

Gates noted there was also a surge around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

Because of the potential for another outbreak before most people are vaccinated, doctors are urging people to not let their guard down.

Gates noted the city is seeing an increase in cases in younger populations that are mostly not eligible for the vaccine yet.

Ald. Michele Smith of the 43rd Ward, which encompasses parts of Lincoln Park and Old Town, said this week in a newsletter to residents that her ward’s ZIP codes led the city in new cases last week, many of which were diagnosed in people younger than 40.

In Michigan, a state where many Chicagoans holiday, there are more cases of young people being admitted to hospitals, Landon said.

Landon noted that we will “have a much nicer summer ahead of us” if people try to mitigate the surge now. A bigger uptick could mean government officials roll back some reopening measures.

“If we all just kind of give up … and say we’re not going to try to mitigate this, we could be looking at big surges again,” Gates said. “It’s scary, to say the least.”

Still, experts say there is reason to be hopeful too. Though he said he is concerned about the uptick in cases, Dr. Robert Citronberg, executive medical director of infectious disease and prevention for Advocate Aurora Health, pointed to an increasing number of people who have been vaccinated along with the individuals who already had the virus.

“The good news is, I don’t think the numbers are there to have a massive surge like we did in the fall and winter,” Citronberg said.

He believes the second half of the year could be an improvement and pointed to Biden’s target of July 4 as a turning point. He stressed that people should continue masking and social distancing.

“I think if people continue to get vaccinated, that’s a pretty realistic target,” he said. “We’re close, we’re just not there yet. So hold on.”

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