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Latest COVID surge grips hospitals: ‘Omicron is certainly rearing its ugly head’

Health systems see rising cases, staffing challenges and no relief in sight.

Nurse Tamara Jones checks blood sugar levels for a 73-year-old COVID-19 patient on a ventilator in the Intensive Care Unit at Roseland Community Hospital in December of 2020.
Chicago hospitals are seeing a surge in COVID-19 patients as the Omicron variant is spreading rapidly.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Chicago hospitals are seeing a surge in COVID-19 patients and are bracing for even more as a highly contagious type of the virus is spreading through the Midwest.

Some large hospitals are seeing coronavirus cases rise 50% in just the past week as the Omicron variant is quickly becoming the dominant form of COVID.

That has health systems preparing to expand spaces for an onslaught of COVID patients, working to shore up staffing even as health care workers become infected themselves, limiting the number of visitors into their sites and pleading with unvaccinated Chicagoans to get their shots.

“Our biggest concern is that we will not have the beds or the staff to care for our patients should the number of COVID-19 cases continue to increase at the current rate,” Dr. Susan Bleasdale, University of Illinois Chicago’s chief quality officer and an infectious disease doctor, said at a news conference with city officials Tuesday. “This is a rapid increase for us that is more rapid than what we saw last winter.”

At UIC, intensive care unit beds were full as of midday Tuesday, Bleasdale said. In an interview, Bleasdale said a bed later opened up after a patient was discharged.

COVID cases jumped 50% in just a week to 45 patients at the hospital, said Bleasdale, who stopped short of calling the situation a crisis. Across the city, more than 80% of intensive care unit beds are full, Chicago health department figures show.

“Yesterday, COVID-19 accounted for only 20% of patients in hospitals across the city but, with Omicron cases doubling every two to three days, our health systems are likely at risk of becoming rapidly overwhelmed,” Bleasdale added.

“If you have not been vaccinated, please take a moment to reflect on that decision,” Bleasdale said.

At the University of Chicago, there were 102 COVID patients in the hospital Tuesday and that’s an almost 50% increase from the previous week, according to a memo from Chief Operating Officer Jason Keeler.

“Due to the dramatic increase in COVID-19 activity, we’re instituting system-wide changes to ensure we’re able to provide safe patient care,” Keeler said.

Those changes include limiting visitors to the hospital and returning more employees to remote work settings, the memo said. U. of C. is also trying to preserve an ample supply of COVID tests by strictly limiting testing to patients and sick employees who have been exposed to the virus.

At Cook County Health, officials are expanding the spaces in Stroger Hospital for COVID patients. Stroger is seeing an increase in admissions to its emergency room, a spokeswoman said.

Several hospitals noted that they are struggling to provide adequate staff, especially as some health care workers are themselves testing positive for COVID largely due to breakthrough infections among the vaccinated.

Hospitals are turning to nursing temp agencies, which can be a real strain for small hospitals that can hardly afford the higher costs.

St. Bernard Hospital in Englewood, for instance, is struggling to staff the increase in patients. St. Bernard had 18 COVID patients on Tuesday and another 15 people were awaiting results of testing for the virus. Ten of the hospital’s 15 intensive care beds were occupied by COVID patients, said Rochelle Bello, the hospital’s director of infection prevention.

Like other hospitals, staff are getting infections at St. Bernard.

“Omicron is certainly rearing its ugly head,” Bello said. “Everyone in the community is being impacted by COVID.”

At Advocate Aurora Health, the largest hospital system in Illinois and Wisconsin, COVID hospitalizations almost tripled in the past two months to 911, a spokesman said.

“This situation is growing more challenging by the day,” Advocate said in a statement. “Beds are tight, wait times are long and our team members are strained.”

At Rush University Medical Center, the number of cases are also rising quickly, though officials aren’t saying how much. That’s requiring precision tracking of staffing, hospital beds, supplies, medicines and other trends, a hospital official said.

“We’re revisiting all things we were doing a year ago when cases were increasing,” Dr. Paul Casey, Rush chief medical officer said.

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.