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‘Vaccination is key to controlling pandemic’: Hospitals brace for patient surges as levels near 2020

Dr. Ezike: Northern Illinois hospital bed availability reaching ‘critically low levels’ amid COVID-19 surge

DeKALB - Dr. Mujahid Hussain, pulmonologist at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital, said Friday the volume of patients coming in lately is starting to resemble the volume of patients about a year ago.

“A lot of people are sick and a lot of people are coming in with severe symptoms,” Hussain said.

Hussain said the majority of COVID-19 patients being hospitalized are unvaccinated from the coronavirus. He said the number includes a few who are vaccinated, too.

“But their illness is not nearly as severe as those not vaccinated,” Hussain said.

Top state doctor Ngozi Ezike of the Illinois Department of Public Health said Friday COVID-19 hospitalizations are “rising at an alarming rate” in northern Illinois’ Region 1, a geographical area which includes DeKalb County.

As of Friday, 7% of Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds are available in Region 1, according to state data. The seven-day rolling positivity rate for Region 1, which runs north to Rockford and west to the Iowa border, is 9.2%. The DeKalb County positivity rate is at 6.6%. Positivity rates are reported with a three-day data lag. Region 1 also reported a seven-day average of 264 COVID-19 patients hospitalized.

“We are seeing COVID admission rates at a severely alarming rate,” Ezike said during a news conference held Friday morning with officials from the Rockford area. “Hospital bed availability has reached critically low levels, demand on resources is high and wait times in local emergency rooms are very long.”

Especially with the upcoming holidays, Hussain said he encourages people to take precautions with gatherings.

“If somebody is sick, avoid going to the party and meeting other people,” Hussain said. “And if someone is sick, seek medical help immediately.”

During last year’s winter 2020 surge, the regional hospitalization rate peaked at just over 300 patients, according to the IDPH.

There have been 457 new COVID-19 cases reported this week between 12:01 p.m. Friday and noon today, Friday, Dec. 17. DeKalb County hasn’t charted that high of a weekly case count since mid November 2020, according to the health department. Nearly 100 new COVID-19 cases were reported Friday.

Ezike said it’s imperative that beds remain free for both COVID-19 patients and others. Surges continue to take a toll on both overwhelmed hospital staff and availability for staff to treat patients within reasonable time. The IDPH director said people experiencing non-emergency healthcare needs should instead go to clinics or primary care providers, to free up needed space in emergency rooms.

Kishwaukee, Valley West report 75% patient rate of winter 2020

Maura O’Toole, president of Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital in DeKalb and Valley West in Sandwich, said it’s not uncommon for both hospitals to be at their busiest in December, even outside of pandemic times.

O’Toole said a combination of factors contribute to busy seasons for the hospitals. Those include an increase in infection transmission, such as the current surge of COVID-19, due to people congregating indoors instead of out, and within close spaces.

“And we’re even busier now,” O’Toole said.

Northwestern Medicine officials declined on Friday to give exact numbers of beds available at each hospital. They also declined to say how many patients are waiting for beds, or whether the waiting lists are for ICU beds or general beds.

However, they confirmed the number of COVID-19 patients at Kishwaukee and Valley West hospitals are currently at about 75% of what either hospital saw in December 2020, during their largest volume of COVID-19 patients to date. About 30% of total patients in both hospitals are COVID-19 patients right now, Northwestern Medicine officials confirmed.

Both hospitals have been using overflow areas to help with the recent influx of patients, O’Toole said. However, the patient influx has not reached emergency levels throughout the entire pandemic, she said.

“We work every day to review our staffing and discharge patients who are ready to go,” O’Toole said.

She pointed to overburdened staff amid the ongoing patient needs, and said hospital administration is doing what they can do monitor staffing levels and support those who’ve worked during the nearly two-year pandemic.

“I think it’s very wearing – there hasn’t been much of a break,” O’Toole said. " … It’s a lot to deal with.”

Ezike said the state is continuing to send healthcare resources to overwhelmed hospitals, but there’s no plan in place currently to receive additional federal aid. She said that plan was originally supposed to end at the end of the year but instead will remain in place into 2022.

O’Toole said it’s also important for patients to understand what ailments warrant a trip to the emergency room or which ones can be taken care of at an immediate care center. She brought up an example of people coming into the emergency room for a sore throat.

“It might be more appropriate to be cared for in immediate care center as opposed to the hospital emergency room,” O’Toole said.

Ezike said the continued course of action remains to prioritize vaccinations, the best way to stop continued spread and limit severe cases of viral infection that require hospitalization.

“Our key message here continues to be get the vaccine,” Ezike said. “And if vaccinated and eligible, get the booster. However, we are also urging the public to use primary care providers, walk-in clinics and urgent care facilities for non-emergency needs so emergency department beds remain available.”

Hussain echoed the same sentiment as Ezike.

“Vaccination is the key to controlling this pandemic.”