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Help is on the way? Pritzker sends thousands of contract health care workers to hospitals swamped with unvaccinated patients

More Illinoisans are testing positive for COVID-19 each day than ever before — an average of 32,501 per day over the last week — and “unfortunately, right now, today, the hospitals are bearing the brunt,” Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said. The spike is also resulting in more deaths, with 144 on Wednesday alone, the worst daily toll in over a year.

Nurse Alma Abad cares for a 59-year-old woman with COVID-19 in the Intensive Care Unit at Roseland Community Hospital on the Far South Side last week. Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Wednesday he is sending more than 2,000 contract health care workers to hospitals across Illinois.
Nurse Alma Abad cares for a 59-year-old woman with COVID-19 in the Intensive Care Unit at Roseland Community Hospital on the Far South Side last week. Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Wednesday he is sending more than 2,000 contract health care workers to hospitals across Illinois.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

More than 2,000 contract health care workers are being deployed to hospitals across Illinois as a critically understaffed system is being overwhelmed by a cascade of unvaccinated COVID-19 patients unlike any other seen throughout the pandemic.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Wednesday that 919 supplemental workers have already been placed at hospitals “hit hard by COVID” as the Omicron variant stretches the health care system to the limit. Another 552 workers are expected to arrive by the end of next week.

The state is also putting together “COVID reaction teams” to provide quick responses to facilities nearing a breaking point, Pritzker said during a Loop news conference. About 237 were already in the field with 340 more on the way.

“With unprecedented numbers of patients being hospitalized, we must do all that we can to keep our health care workers and institutions operating and available to all who need medical assistance,” Pritzker said.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at a news conference at the Thompson Center earlier this month.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at a news conference at the Thompson Center earlier this month.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

More Illinoisans are testing positive for COVID-19 each day than ever before — an average of 32,501 per day over the last week — and “unfortunately, right now, today, the hospitals are bearing the brunt,” Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said.

The state reported 7,219 hospitalized COVID-19 patients as of Tuesday night, a decrease of more than a hundred from the previous night — but still the second-highest number of concurrent admissions ever recorded in Illinois, and more than a thousand higher than the state’s previous apex.

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“This is the absolute highest number, and not just by a couple. Our previous totals have been smashed,” Ezike said.

Intensive care units were 91% full statewide Tuesday, and worse in some regions: 92% in suburban Cook County, 93% in Chicago, 95% in Will and Kankakee counties and 96% in the downstate Metro East region.

Health care workers put on new personal protective equipment as patients rest nearby in the hallway, as no rooms were open in the Emergency Department at Roseland Community Hospital on the Far South Side last week.
Health care workers put on new personal protective equipment as patients rest nearby in the hallway, as no rooms were open in the Emergency Department at Roseland Community Hospital on the Far South Side last week.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

It’s an issue of staffing, not space. Burnout after nearly two years of the pandemic has left the health care workforce “decimated,” while many of those still grinding it out on the front lines have been sidelined with the more infectious Omicron variant themselves, officials said.

“Imagine yourself as one of the nurses or the doctors that’s going into the umpteenth patient room to treat a person for something that was preventable. Our health care workers are burning the candle at both ends, and in the middle as well, to care for COVID patients who could have avoided the hospitalization if they were up to date on their vaccine,” Ezike said.

More than 80% of new hospital admissions for COVID-19 come from the roughly 22% of the state’s eligible population who have not been vaccinated, officials said. Of Illinois’ 8 million fully vaccinated residents, 0.08% of them have ended up in a hospital with the virus.

The spike in hospitalizations is also resulting in more deaths, a pattern that has played out five times so far since March of 2020. The state reported 144 COVID deaths Wednesday, the worst daily toll in over a year. The virus is claiming an average of 93 lives per day, a rate that has more than quadrupled since Thanksgiving.

Case counts have leveled off over the past few days, but Ezike cautioned “it’s too soon to tell’ if Illinois is coming down the other side of a dangerous Omicron peak.

Director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, Dr. Ngozi Ezike gives an update on COVID-19 vaccinations during a news conference in October.
Director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, Dr. Ngozi Ezike gives an update on COVID-19 vaccinations during a news conference in October.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

“The most important thing that you can do right now is to get vaccinated, get boosted. wear a mask to stop the spread,” Pritzker said.

Additionally, to help cope with the hospital crisis, the state is expediting individual hospitals’ applications for federal assistance in securing additional health care workers. The Pritzker administration is also loosening regulations on out-of-state health care workers to allow them to care for all patients, not just those with COVID, and allowing doctors who were trained in other nations to assist licensed physicians in the state.

Pritzker’s office couldn’t immediately put a price tag on the 2,048 health care workers being called in, but with a nationwide shortage, “we are paying, unfortunately, very, very high costs,” Ezike said.

The state has had contracts with staffing agencies who have been called into action previously in the pandemic, like last summer when ICUs were overrun for more than a week in southern Illinois.

Vaccines are free at pharmacies nationwide. For help finding a shot, visit vaccines.gov.