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Free COVID tests available; Chicago hospitalizations rise

The federal government is offering free at-home COVID-19 tests again to slow the spread of the virus during the fall and winter seasons.

The federal government has announced the return of its offer to provide free at-home tests for COVID-19. These tests can be requested on the website, with each residential address limited to one order containing four rapid antigen tests. The request form on the site only requires visitors to provide their name and mailing address, with no payment information necessary. Orders will be shipped via the U.S. Postal Service starting next week.

The decision to reintroduce the free at-home tests was made by the Biden administration as part of a $600 million plan that includes funding for test production. The government aims to make these tests available throughout the holiday season in order to slow down the spread of the virus. Dawn O'Connell, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services, emphasized the importance of recognizing the ongoing presence of the virus and the potential for increased cases during the fall and winter seasons.

Massimo Pacilli, the deputy commissioner of disease control at the Chicago Department of Public Health, highlighted the value of both the tests available at stores and pharmacies, as well as the free at-home tests, in preparing the public for the upcoming seasons. He advised individuals to get tested if they experience symptoms or have been exposed to someone with COVID-19. Testing not only allows for isolation to protect others but also enables early treatment for those at higher risk of severe illness.

Although Chicago currently has a "low" COVID-19 risk level, hospitalizations in the city have risen by 30% in the past week. This upward trend has been ongoing since July when the disease's spread and severity reached its lowest point during the pandemic. However, the number of lab-confirmed cases in Chicago has slightly decreased for the second consecutive week. Health administrators caution that this indicator may not fully reflect the actual spread of the disease due to fewer people seeking lab-based testing.

Pacilli emphasized that the increase in hospitalizations serves as a reminder that COVID-19 is still present and will continue to result in waves of infections, some of which may require hospitalization. However, he also noted that the current hospitalization rate is only about one-third of what it was a year ago, largely due to immunity from vaccinations and prior infections. Additionally, a new vaccine has arrived in Chicago, specifically updated to provide better protection against severe illness caused by the virus's variants.

Although the number of vaccinations administered in Chicago dropped to pandemic lows last week, Pacilli expects an increase in vaccinations as more providers receive available vaccine supplies in the coming weeks. This, combined with the availability of free at-home tests, will contribute to the city's efforts to combat the ongoing presence of COVID-19.

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