Coronavirus

Kishwaukee, Valley West hospitals activate surge plans, not at full capacity yet

40% of Kishwaukee patients have COVID-19, reports Northwestern Medicine

DeKALB - Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee and Valley West hospitals have activated surge plans, although the plans aren’t at peak since the hospitals haven’t yet reached capacity, health officials said.

A week ago, chief medical officer Dr. Michael Kulisz warned residents to avoid Kishwaukee and Valley West emergency rooms unless they absolutely need to use them, citing overwhelmed workers, not enough staff and long wait times as a result of the omicron-fueled COVID-19 surge.

“We’re reassessing our surge plan, and it’s been in effect,” Kulisz said. “We have not yet taken our surge plan to the limit. As of right now, we have not stopped elective surgeries, but we are assessing that on a daily basis, and we have moved some cases to a surgery center. We still feel we have some capacity.”

As cases skyrocket to record levels, DeKalb County’s hospitals remain burdened, Kulisz said, although they’re not yet at breaking point. About 40% of inpatients at Kishwaukee Hospital have COVID-19, said Kim Waterman, media relations manager with Northwestern Medicine. The health system declined to provide numbers of patients hospitalized, what emergency room patient numbers are and what staffing levels looks like.

Kulisz said the majority of COVID-19 patients continue to be the unvaccinated.

The surge plan includes treating patients in the intensive care unit and the intermediate care unit wards, the latter for patients who still require an extended hospital stay and close monitoring, but don’t present as severely as ICU patients. Such wards are used for non-COVID-19 patients as well, for people who might need emergency care after car crashes, heart attacks, labor emergencies or other issues.

“We are assessing it daily and we’re utilizing the beds to match the patients,” Kulisz said. “We haven’t doubled up patients in rooms as of yet but we are in the process of opening up some beds that may have double occupancy, and if the surge continues we will do so.”

Since Dec. 30, there have been 2,002 more virus cases reported in the county, the most in such a short time since the pandemic began. Almost half of those cases were reported in the past three days.

While case numbers might be a product of delayed testing results, the volume of cases is the highest (23.4% positivity rate, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health) it’s been since the pandemic began, county health officials said Friday, calling the uptick “alarming.”

ICU bed availability hasn’t risen above 9 beds in the past week. The region is averaging 329 COVID-19 patients per week, according to state data. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports DeKalb County is averaging 51 new hospital admissions and 1,280 cases per 100,000 residents.

What it means for patient care

While the viral surge’s most obvious impact is those who contract the disease, long-term strain on hospitals creates its own roadblocks, trickling down into patient’s who haven’t contracted the disease and staff who’ve been pulled off other duties to tend to more critical needs.

“As of right now, everybody’s feeling the crunch on staffing,” Kulisz said. “The ICCs are becoming overcrowded, so we’re moving them to other areas. The convenient care was also overcrowded the other day.”

Kulisz said outpatient surgeries are being performed if necessary at the Northwestern Medicine Surgery Center at 2120 Midlands Court in Sycamore. Doctors are screening surgical patients for COVID-19 and will cancel a scheduled elective surgery if someone tests positive.

Physicians also could cancel surgeries if a patient will afterward require an extended hospital stay to recuperate, Waterman said.

Lisa Gonzalez, public health administrator with the DeKalb County Health Department, said prolonged strains on hospitals across the region remain a concern.

“As of Friday last week, we were continuing to [see] ICU beds at very low numbers, continuing to see patient increases, so that remains a concern and it should remain a concern for the community,” Gonzalez said. “They’re having to prioritize at this point and it’s really, really challenging and taxing on the system.”

Staff strains

In pre-pandemic times, if a hospital was feeling overrun, it might call a neighboring county to send in reserves or reach out within the Northwestern Medicine health system to call for backup.

Hospitals are fielding their own surges, however, so that’s not an option. As of Friday, 6 ICU beds were available in the seven-county region, including DeKalb County, north to Rockford and the Sauk Valley area.

“We’re unable to pull because everyone’s feeling the pull, that’s the difficult part,” Kulisz said. “We’re trying to get crisis nurses coming from the state. Obviously when you have more people in quarantine that are staff members and an increase in patient volume, that’s a stronger workload on those that are left.”

He asks that people who believe they were exposed to COVID-19 test elsewhere, but come to the hospital if they’re having trouble breathing. If exposed, monitor symptoms and wait at least five days to test if you can. Coming to the hospital a day or two after exposure won’t be helpful, he said.

While it’s true nationwide hospitals have noted an uptick in COVID-19 hospitalization among children during the surge, Northwestern Medicine hospitals in DeKalb County haven’t yet, Kulisz said.

Northwestern Medicine visitor policy

Northwestern Medicine’s visitor policy remains restrictive for all health system buildings. To see the full rules, head to nm.org.

All visitors should be 18 or older, unless they’re a minor patient’s parents. Visiting hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. at all Northwestern Medicine hospitals. Masks must be worn at all times inside hospital buildings.

No visitors are allowed for patients being evaluated for COVID-19 until a health care worker rules out a viral infection, according to the policy. For emergency departments, patients not being treated for COVID-19 are allowed one visitor, although they’ll have to maintain physical distance or be asked to wait in a public lobby or car until a patient is in an exam room.

Labor patients and those in the neonatal or pediatric intensive care units can have two support people with them. Patients undergoing surgery are allowed one visitor.

DeKalb County continues to report a high community transmission of the virus, according to the CDC. As of Friday, the county reported about 1,280 cases per 100,000 residents and 51 new hospital admissions.