Apr 7, 2023 - COVID

Allergies vs. COVID: How Chicagoans can stay safe over spring break

box of tissues

Monica's tissue box. Photo: Monica Eng/Axios

I'm working through a second round of COVID that I originally thought was allergies.

Why it matters: This month lots of folks are returning from spring break and holding Passover, Easter and Ramadan gatherings that may include older or immunocompromised guests.

Driving the news: Although officials don't track most cases anymore, another metric, wastewater surveillance, shows detections are on the rise in parts of the city.

  • Samples taken on the North Side, downtown and at the Calumet Treatment Plant on the South Side show increases in COVID levels in recent weeks. Meanwhile, hospitalizations have seen an uptick.

Between the lines: That's in line with the anecdotal accounts from friends who recently got sick and from the nurse at my mom's senior center, who says she's seen a big jump in cases.

  • But University of Chicago infectious disease specialist Emily Landon warns that experts are still learning how to confidently interpret wastewater data.
  • Almost all outbreaks have been preceded by wastewater increases, she explained, but not all wastewater increases have predicted an outbreak.

The intrigue: We're in peak allergy season, which is intensifying across the country with some of the largest changes in the Midwest, per the Washington Post. And this year's pollen season started earlier than usual due to a warm January and February.

  • Loyola Medicine has reported moderate to high allergy counts from Chicago trees this week.

Yes, but: "The biggest mistake people make is that they think their symptoms are just their allergies," Landon tells Axios. "It turns out that sometimes your allergies are really COVID, and it's not worth risking it with grandma or grandpa."

What they're saying: "The same rules apply for Easter and Passover gatherings that have applied for any of the holidays we’ve had this year," Landon says.

  • "You have to be careful, and if you're sick, you absolutely should stay home. If you have any high-risk people around you, it’s also a good idea to do a COVID test before getting together."

Tips for travelers: For those traveling for spring break, Landon recommends wearing a mask on airplanes and avoiding unnecessary contact.

  • She also suggests that travelers take additional precautions upon returning home, such as masking for a week, to mitigate the risks of potentially spreading COVID.
  • "Put it another way: You probably shouldn't go hang out with your great grandmother the day after you get off a plane from your spring break adventure."

Of note: Some may have noticed that Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson sounded congested as he made the rounds this week. We asked if he might have you-know-what and his office told us this:

  • "Out of an abundance of caution Mayor-elect Johnson took a COVID test yesterday, which came back negative. He gets seasonal allergies around this time of year."
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