File Photo – Dr. Ngozi O. Ezike | Photo: Colin Boyle/My Block, My Hood, My City

Illinois’ top health official acknowledged “a lot of unmasked indoor gatherings” are likely causing an increase in new COVID-19 cases, but said the state’s mask mandate will remain in place.

Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike was interviewed by downstate news station WGEM last week about the increase in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

Ezike told WGEM that she believes many events that were held outdoors during warmer weather have been moved indoors in recent weeks.

“As we’ve moved indoors, we haven’t maybe taken our masks indoors with us. So a lot of unmasked indoor gatherings are likely part of the problem,” Ezike said. “Of course, COVID is so complicated. It’s been throwing us curveball after curveball.”

Ezike said it is inappropriate to think of going mask-free for the holidays, WGEM reported.

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Illinois is one of six states in the United States that still have a mask mandate in place for all residents, including those who are vaccinated.

In October, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said — at a time when COVID-19 cases were decreasing — that he could lift “certain mask mandates” before the holidays if cases and hospitalizations decreased further.

“I want them [mitigations] to go away too. But we want to make sure we are keeping people healthy and safe following the guidelines doctors are offering for us. Obviously we want to remove the mitigations as we approach the holidays. It’s an important marker for us,” Pritzker said on October 19 during a press conference.

In November, Pritzker said he would be keeping the state’s mask mandate in place until there was a further decline in hospitalizations, which he said were “flat” at the time.

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In a recent interview with Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rich Miller, Pritzker said that epidemiologists are worried about a winter surge in cases.

“Their expectation is that January and February we could see a surge of cases and the resulting hospitalizations. So, how worried am I? I am worried as much as the epidemiologists are,” Pritzker told Miller.

“One of the questions that you have to ask yourself and that we all ask ourselves is, if we modify mitigations now as things are mildly reducing or getting better, what changes do you make now if you think that in January and February, you’re gonna see potentially a surge?” Pritzker said.

The latest COVID-19 wave in Illinois peaked at the end of August and new cases and hospitalizations began to decline for approximately two months, state health data shows.

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In late October, new cases and hospitalizations began to increase again.