Illinois hospital beds are filling up with more COVID-19 patients than at any other point in the pandemic — prompting fears of employee burnout amid staffing shortages.
As of Sunday night, there were 6,294 people hospitalized with COVID-19 across the state, topping the previous record of 6,175 set on Nov. 20, 2020 months before a vaccine was widely accessible.
The surge in hospitalizations comes as the Illinois Department of Public Health released figures showing a new statewide record of daily coronavirus cases set on Friday, New Year’s Eve, when 31,461 new infections were reported, topping 30,386 from the day before.
“Unfortunately, we are reaching all-time record numbers of cases and surging hospitalizations, so we must approach this first several weeks of January with a good deal of caution,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said during a news conference Monday.
“With the holidays only a week or two in the rearview mirror, I fear the climb will continue as the virus incubates in those who were exposed at the end of December.”
Monday’s statewide caseload was 20,866.
The spiraling numbers are prompting concerns across the state’s health care system and fears that it will only get worse.
Advocate Aurora Health alone reported 1,426 COVID-19 patients in its network of hospitals on Sunday, double the number 30 days ago and quadruple the figures from 60 days ago, said Mary Beth Kingston, chief nursing officer. Today’s numbers, she said, rose to 1,491.
“These are very concerning numbers, not just numbers but people, who are so ill that they require hospitalization,” Kingston said at a separate news conference. “This points to the critically important need to be vaccinated and to receive the booster if eligible.”
Kingston said internal data shows that 92% of inpatients are either unvaccinated, have only received one dose or are due for a booster. Most patients who are fully vaccinated were hospitalized because they were immunocompromised.
“The situation is growing more challenging by the day,” Kingston said. “Beds are very tight and wait times are long and, really significantly, our team members are under, I think, a lot of stress right now.”
Kingston said they are working on some short-term solutions to help worker fatigue amid the national health crisis. This includes additional compensation and programs to help address the employee’s mental wellbeing.
A.J. Wilhelmi, president and CEO of the Illinois Hospital Association, said this recent surge is testing the state’s health care resources as hospitalization and case counts break records.
“Hospital workers are fatigued and wary of this ever-present virus and its impact on their family, friends and neighbors,” Wilhelmi said. “They see and experience the heartbreak it has caused, but they remain committed and compassionate, and they are standing tall.”
Gabrielle Cummings, president of Highland Park Hospital, said cases have “dramatically increased” at her hospital and the three others that are part of NorthShore University Health Systems.
“Cases have spiked over 200% from 46 patients to over 138 patients since the first week in December,” Cummings said. “The overwhelming majority of these patients are unvaccinated.”
Cummings said NorthShore has implemented teams to respond exclusively to COVID-19 care to help meet the rising demand. The health system also has suspended all non-emergency elective procedures from Jan. 3 to Jan. 14. Still, she said, many staff members are feeling the fatigue of the two-year pandemic.
Dr. Omar Lateef, president and CEO of Rush University Medical Center, said concerns over staffing are one of the “painful realities of the pandemic.”
“We’ve had the highest number of retirements,” Lateef said. “We’ve had a high amount of burnout, and so that is one of the reasons that there is such an incredible need for staffing.”
Staffing problems that predate the pandemic has many hospitals across the country competing heavily for employees.
“It’s a challenge to get people in to serve in these roles, and that’s why it is particularly challenging time right now with the increasing [COVID] numbers coming at the same time we have a decreasing staff,” Lateef said.
Pritzker said the state has been working to help staff hospitals that are struggling.
Dr. Jeff Bahr, Advocate Aurora Health’s chief medical group officer, said the strain on hospitals is largely preventable.
“This is largely a problem of the unvaccinated,” Bahr said. “The overwhelming majority of our COVID positive inpatients and the more severely affected inpatients are unvaccinated, and so what we are seeing are people infected with Omicron who had they been vaccinated and boosted may not have had as severe an outcome.”
Bahr said the health system has had to pause, reschedule, or dial back nonessential elective procedures and surgeries.
“As a large integrated health system, we are able to flex and redeploy staff and resources to geographic areas of greatest need,” Bahr said. “In some cases, we’ve moved patients to different Advocate Aurora sites and facilities to more effectively manage bed capacity.”
Also Monday, the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office reported 4,497 COVID-19 deaths for 2021, more than a third of the office’s entire 12,618 caseload. And Chicago’s Department of Human Resources reported that all city departments are above 90% compliant on the city’s vaccination policy.