Suburban Cook County recorded its first positive test for COVID-19’s highly contagious omicron variant last week amid a surge of new cases throughout the area, including Brookfield, Riverside and North Riverside.

On Dec. 15, Dr. Rachel Rubin announced a suburban Cook County resident has tested positive for the omicron variant, saying it was only a matter of time before it became the predominant variant as has happened elsewhere in the world.

“Omicron is almost certainly going to overtake delta as the main variant circulating in the United States and then, obviously in Illinois,” Rubin said during the Dec. 15 video press conference. “Based on what we are seeing in Africa and Europe in particular, it’s likely to take over very quickly because it’s much more contagious.”

Rubin declined to say which suburb the person who tested positive lived or where that person may have been exposed to the disease. The person was asymptomatic, said Rubin, and had tested positive after being identified as a close contact of someone else who’d been infected with the omicron variant of the disease.

A week earlier, a Chicago resident became the first Illinoisan to test positive for the omicron variant. It was not revealed whether the suburban Cook County case was related. 

The Chicago resident who tested positive in early December reportedly had been fully vaccinated and had received a booster, demonstrating the infectious nature of the variant. The suburban resident had also been fully vaccinated, though possibly unboostered.

While omicron is highly contagious, symptoms generally appear to be less severe than those resulting from infection by the alpha or now-dominant delta variants.

“Preliminary data does indicate that omicron causes a milder form of COVID, which is good news obviously because that would decrease the number of deaths that we see and potentially decrease the number of hospitalizations,” Rubin said.

County officials still worry that hospitals could be overwhelmed if omicron causes an explosion of new cases. The best defense against that happening, said Rubin, is for those eligible to be fully vaccinated and get a booster shot if you are six months past the date of your second dose of vaccine (or two months past the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine).

“The literature is beginning to come out showing that if you are vaccinated with three doses, or two with the Johnson & Johnson, that can confer as much as 75-percent protection against getting severe COVID,” Rubin said. “So if you’re not vaccinated, it means you’re more likely to get a more severe case of COVID, even with the omicron.”

Late last week, the Cook County Department of Public Health issued guidance for mitigating COVID-19 during the upcoming holidays as the omicron variant spreads. In addition to urging those eligible to get vaccinated and boosted as soon as possible, health officials are advising that anyone who is not vaccinated to avoid gathering indoors with people outside their household.

Vaccinated people wishing to celebrate with family are urged to get a COVID test two to three days before the gathering and test again on the morning of the get together. Wearing masks indoors is also recommended.

Hundreds visit pop-up clinics

On Dec. 19, hundreds of people lined up outside three Cook County Health clinics, including the one at 1800 Harlem Ave. in North Riverside, for a pop-up vaccine event hosted by the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Nearly 3,000 people received doses of the BioNTech-Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines at three pop-up clinics Sunday in Arlington Heights, Blue Island and North Riverside. 

The line at the North Riverside location, where vaccines were administered between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., reportedly snaked all the way out to the parkway along Harlem Avenue at one time.

60546 ZIP code posts highest 1-week case total

No new fatal cases of COVID-19 were reported in Brookfield, Riverside or North Riverside during the past week, but the number of new cases for the week ending Dec. 20 in the 60546 ZIP code, which includes Riverside and North Riverside, have skyrocketed in the past three weeks.

As late as Nov. 30, the two villages had recorded a combined 13 new cases in one week. For the week ending Dec. 20, the ZIP code recorded 106 new cases – 56 in Riverside and 50 in North Riverside.

The 106 new cases were the most in any one-week period in 60546 since the pandemic began in March 2020. The second-highest total for the ZIP code was 105, recorded during the week-long period ending Dec. 1, 2020.

That said, the seven-day rolling positivity rate of 3.11 percent as of Dec. 17 in 60546, according to the Northwestern University School of Medicine online COVID dashboard, was still lower than suburban Cook County generally. 

The Cook County Department of Public Health on Dec. 20 was reporting a weekly positivity rate of 5.2 percent in the Chicago suburbs.

The weekly number of new COVID cases in Brookfield rose for the fourth straight week as of Dec. 20. During the week ending on that date, Brookfield recorded 89 new cases after recording 80 the week prior.

According to the Northwestern University online dashboard, the seven-day rolling positivity rate in Brookfield as of Dec. 17 matched suburban Cook County at 5.2 percent.

The increase in cases in each village has also seeped into the public schools, which are now on hiatus for the winter break until early January.

Riverside School District 96 on Dec. 17 reported 31 new student cases and three new staff cases at its five schools, with 12 students testing positive at Ames School and 10 at Hauser Junior High School.

The week before – also at the time a weekly high for the school year – District 96 reported 17 new student cases.

“It is concerning to see the number of increased cases in District 96,” said Riverside District 96 Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye in an email. “We know these increased cases are reflective of the community at large. We encourage families to celebrate safely and return to school healthy. We also encourage all of our vaccine eligible students to get vaccinated.”

Riverside-Brookfield High School recorded 31 new student cases of COVID-19 in December, the highest monthly total since school began. The second highest was 10, in September.

For the week of Dec. 10-16 at Lyons Township High School, there were 42 new student cases compared to 17 the week before, which was a school-year high at the time.