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Southern Illinois’ hospital ICU situation improving, but ‘we’re still really preparing for the next wave’

Critical care units across the region’s 22 hospitals are still operating at 79% capacity, but that’s better than the past few weeks.

ICUs in southern Illinois finally have more beds available after the Delta variant surge.
ICUs in southern Illinois finally have more beds available after the Delta variant surge.
Getty file photo of COVID-19 patient care

The COVID-19 Delta variant “wildfire” is still burning in southern Illinois, but it’s finally simmering down, hospital officials said Tuesday.

After a month that saw intensive care units stretched to the limit across the 20 counties that span the southern tip of the state, public health officials reported 17 ICU beds were available as of Monday night.

Critical care units across the region’s 22 hospitals are still operating at 79% capacity, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health — but that’s a great deal better than the past few weeks, when only one or two beds were available on most given nights for southern Illinois’ 400,000-plus residents.

The second week of September was as bad as any throughout the pandemic for the region, when all ICU beds were full for seven straight days. The shortage forced hospitals to divert some patients as far away as Kansas City and Nashville to receive critical care, and prompted the state to deploy 241 supplemental health care workers to the region that has Illinois’ lowest vaccination rates.

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Southern Illinois Healthcare, which operates four hospitals in the region, was treating more than 70 COVID-19 patients on some nights of this latest surge, which appears to be waning. That number was down to 47 last Thursday, according to Rosslind Rice, the hospital network’s communications director. All but three of those patients were unvaccinated.

“It’s been a Delta wildfire down here, but things are starting to look better,” she said. “We’re trending in the right direction. We’re still not where we want to be.”

The increased hospital bed availability follows a sharp decline in the region’s seven-day average coronavirus testing positivity rate, which has fallen by more than half since Sept. 18 to 4.8%.

That follows the statewide trend, with Illinois’ 2.2% positivity rate marking its lowest point since mid-July. Total cases have dipped about 38% overall since early September.

The numbers “continue to look really good in Chicago,” according to city Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady. Compared to last week, city cases are down 3%, new hospitalizations are down 54% and deaths are down 19%.

Other states are “slowly but surely making progress,” too, Arwady said, prompting the city to remove Connecticut from its quarantine advisory for vaccinated travelers. The advisory still applies to all other states except California.

Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, discusses Chicago’s COVID-19 response during a news conference in August at City Hall in the Loop.
Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, discusses Chicago’s COVID-19 response during a news conference in August at City Hall in the Loop.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

The numbers have improved as more people have gotten vaccinated. But while roughly 63% of all Illinois residents and 67% of Chicagoans have been fully vaccinated, only about 39% of southern Illinoisans have — a number that has “barely budged” since the Delta wave hit, Rice said. Alexander County has the lowest vaccination rate in the state at 17.6%.

“We’re still really preparing for the next wave. This is a nice dip here, but we’re waiting to see what happens when we get into the holiday season,” Rice said. “We know long-term, the way out of the pandemic is vaccination, so it’s a point of concern to get more people vaccinated and break down some of these barriers of hesitancy. Let’s talk with each other and not at each other.”

For help finding a vaccine appointment, visit coronavirus.illinois.gov or call (833) 621-1284.