Advocate Aurora hospital system struggles in early January with highest numbers of COVID-19 pandemic

More people were hospitalized Sunday in Illinois with COVID-19 than at any point during the pandemic

Hospitals in the Advocate Aurora Health system are seeing the highest number of COVID-19 patients at any point during the pandemic, hospital officials said Monday.

With cases of the delta and omicron variants rapidly spreading through the population, hospital officials say severe COVID-19 cases in largely unvaccinated people are pushing hospitals throughout the Chicago region and Wisconsin to their limits, forcing some care for other patients to be delayed.

“These are very concerning numbers, not just numbers but people who are so ill that they require hospitalization,” Advocate Aurora chief nursing officer Mary Beth Kingston said.

As of Monday morning, Advocate Aurora had 1,491 patients with COVID-19. That includes 70 at Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, which ranked seventh out of 26 Advocate hospitals for most hospitalizations. Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin followed closely behind with 62 patient and then by Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington with 61. Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn leads the region with 269 patients.

These numbers have doubled in the last month and quadrupled in the last two months, Kingston said.

The fast rise in cases forced many hospital systems, including Advocate Aurora, to postpone many elective surgeries and procedures.

“We’re not delaying cancer diagnosis, cancer treatment or life-saving, limb-saving surgeries and procedures,” said Advocate’s chief medical group officer, Jeff Bahr. “At the same time, we are postponing or delaying – not canceling but rescheduling – certain procedures to times and places where there is appropriate staffing and spacing and capacity to perform those procedures safely.”

Advocate Aurora Health chief medical group officer Jeff Bahr speaks during a press conference on Monday, Jan. 3, 2022.

The hospital system also paused allowing visitors to hospitals for now, Bahr said.

Northwestern Medicine is now rescheduling some procedures to make room for COVID patients, a spokeswoman said in an email.

“Due to the need for inpatient bed availability for the rising number of COVID cases, certain surgeries and procedures are being rescheduled across our health system. We continue to encourage those who are unvaccinated to get vaccinated to protect themselves and our communities from COVID-19,” according to a statement from Northwestern Medicine.

On Monday, the Illinois Department of Public Health reported 6,294 people were hospitalized in Illinois with COVID-19, which is the most seen during the pandemic.

IDPH data from Jan. 3 shows the West Suburban (DuPage and Kane counties) region’s positivity rate increased to 19.4%. Currently, 13% of ICU beds are available.

Within this region, Kane County’s seven-day positivity rate increased to 20.9%, and DuPage County’s increased to 18.7%.

Hospitalizations decreased or remained stable one out of the past 10 days in this region. The region is up to 614 total COVID-19 patients in the hospital.

Northwestern Medicine Delnor and Central DuPage hospitals last week hit the same number of patients as last winter’s peak, although neither hospital has implemented surge protocols as of yet.

Despite some data showing omicron may be less severe than other variants, Kingston said the number of people getting COVID-19 overall is continuing to push hospitals to the brink.

Advocate Aurora has been able to rearrange its staff to provide care and additional employees at hospitals hit hardest by the rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations, Bahr said.

The hospital system was already dealing with a staffing shortage prior to the latest surge, Kingston said. Burnout is one reason for the staffing surge and Advocate is working to incentivize employees to work extra hours.

“Right now we’re focused very much on how do we staff during this short-term crisis, but we’ve got to keep our eye on that longer (term). How do we ensure that we have a healthy, engaged workforce for the future?” Kingston said.

To manage staffing issues, Advocate is offering extra compensation for employees who work more hours. It’s also reducing non-essential work, such as meetings, to allow employees more time to focus on patient care.

Advocate CEO Jim Skogsbergh said more than 1,000 employees at hospitals have volunteered to help with new roles to address some staffing issues.

Advocate Aurora Health CEO Jim Skogsbergh speaks during a press conference with Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker Monday, Jan. 3, 2022.

Kingston said addressing staffing issues is “our top priority in addition to caring for patients.”

To help hospitals prioritize the sickest COVID-19 patients and others in the hospital who need care, Bahr says asymptomatic people should avoid going to the hospital for testing. Instead, they should coordinate a test with their doctor or do an at-home test.

“We want to promote testing, but we want to promote right care, right place, right time. Our health care facilities and venues of care are so overwhelmed with patients who are seeking care for symptomatic issues, both [COVID-19- and non-COVID-19-related],” he said.

However, Bahr said people who come to the hospital will get treatment and will not be turned away.

Advocate officials also said they are seeing flu cases begin to rise and expect they will begin treating more people for the flu.