Rettke: ‘What’s the plan again?’ won’t cut it for this virus surge

Nearly two years into the pandemic, the response to the current COVID-19 surge seems to be “Ignore it and hope for the best.”

You know the surge? The one where 40% of patients at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital have COVID-19 but the catch is there’s long emergency room wait times and fewer workers willing to put up with that? Not enough beds or doctors to staff them? Or too many in quarantine? Who can tell these days.

“Not enough staff” is like the calling card for this new pandemic era. Not enough people to run the onslaught of virus tests in labs, not enough people to make your date night meal at the local pizza place, not enough people to drive your kids to school and, oh yeah, you still have to go to work.

In the past 9 days, more than 2,000 cases were reported in DeKalb County – about half of those just in the past three days. However, hiccups to cleaner data – testing results delayed by a week coming onto the daily dump, at-home COVID-19 tests becoming more prevalent, and people either unintentionally (or, God forbid, intentionally) walking around not testing – suggest that number might be even higher.

Lisa Gonzalez with the DeKalb County Health Department told me so this week.

“Even though our totals have been very, very high lately, it’s only a portion of what exists out there,” Gonzalez said.

It’s not (really) about just the case counts anymore though, is it?

If our 300-per-day case count and ICU bed shortages are the product of test results that are a week behind, what does the actual prevalence of the virus look like now?

We can see it in real time, if you pay attention.

The more immediate cause for worry is two-fold: overwhelmed hospitals and school systems not prepared to take on the surge that probably will follow a return to classrooms this week.

Everyone already knows what’s going to happen. In a letter sent to DeKalb School District 428 families this week before classes resumed Thursday, Superintendent Minerva Garcia-Sanchez urged families to remember the situation is “fluid.”

“We anticipate that for several weeks the situation will remain fluid, and it’s possible that remote learning may be implemented,” she said.

She also asked everyone to get tested before they return to school. That’s fine. We’ve all got time and employers who would be fine if we didn’t show up to work for seven days waiting on a COVID-19 test result, right? I feel for the parents and teachers in this scenario.

What’s the plan here? Wait and see what happens? Wait for the surge to go away in a month or so? Hope people do the right thing and take precautions to stop the spread? And what will we be left with?

Here’s what’s already happening: Disruption of services on health care, businesses, consumers, schoolchildren, workers, loss of income for folks who need it most, more people having a hard time.

Over the past week, I’ve noted many local businesses that have announced temporary closures or impacts due to COVID-19 and staffing shortages. Sycamore Public Library halted in-person programming (you can still browse for books inside). Whiskey Acres, World Famous Pizza, Tails Humane Society in DeKalb and a slew of local restaurants announced the same over social media.

So what part can each of us play in mitigating this mess?

Many of us are privileged enough to be able to work remotely if we need to. But so many more can’t.

During previous viral surges, aid from state and federal arenas provided perhaps some relief for those who needed it most. Stimulus payments to take the edge off financial burden, federal relief aid for businesses and municipalities so that they wouldn’t be so crushed if shutdowns occurred. PPE for people to try and do their jobs as safely as possible.

I’m not sure how many more times I can stand to hear federal, state or local leaders tell people they should get vaccinated.

“Do the right thing,” they say. Are we really sitting here, two years in and with a viable and safe vaccine, often with the foreknowledge of surges hitting other countries around the world first so we can learn from them, thinking that people are going to do the right thing?

Numbers have been surging well above thresholds that last year dictated stricter measures by our state and local leaders.

Federal and state guidance is jumbled, changing at the eleventh hour all the time and leaving families, parents of schoolchildren, workers, scrambling at the last minute.

There seems to be no plan to incentivize people or employers to do the right thing without personal expense.

Do you know how much a box of KN95 masks costs? A (very limited) search of online retailers shows upwards of $60 for 50 masks. Good luck finding an at-home COVID-19 test.

And a negative rapid test one day doesn’t mean you won’t test positive the next day, especially if you don’t (or can’t) change any of your social or workplace behaviors.

I’m not advocating for people to have to shut their businesses down again. I’m saying that if the powers that be insist on folks going to work and school, expected to do jobs, perform labor, provide services and learn, leaders need to step up and provide access to safety measures and aid to mitigate the result of carrying on as we are in this surge.

What happens when the next virus wave comes? Not enough people are getting vaccinated for whatever it is we’re calling this current mitigation mess to work. And more tired people will quit their jobs in between now and then.

There were 531 doses administered at the DeKalb County Health Department’s mass vaccination clinic at NIU’s Convocation Center on Thursday, Gonzalez told us. The majority were boosters, however. There were 25 first or second doses of Pfizer and Moderna administered, and a little more than 40 pediatric first doses to children. According to state data, DeKalb County is averaging about 28 more fully vaccinated residents per day since Dec. 30. That rate isn’t going to cut it.

There are 100,400 people in this county. About 55% are fully vaccinated.

In addition to informative and positive vaccine public health education, we also need to get real and understand that mass illness and mass quarantine are not sustainable. And you can’t just send people out into the world infected.

Because, as we know, actions during this pandemic affect all of us.

Kelsey Rettke

Kelsey Rettke

Kelsey Rettke is the editor of the Daily Chronicle, part of Shaw Media and DeKalb County's only daily newspaper devoted to local news, crime and courts, government, business, sports and community coverage. Kelsey also covers breaking news for Shaw Media Local News Network.