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Three ICU beds left for 800,000 people? COVID-19 patients swamping Will, Kankakee Co. hospitals

Southern Illinois hospitals — which were overrun late last summer during the initial Delta variant wave — are also approaching capacity once again.

A nurse checks blood sugar levels for a woman with COVID-19 at Roseland Community Hospital on the Far South Side in 2020.
A nurse checks blood sugar levels for a woman with COVID-19 in the Intensive Care Unit at Roseland Community Hospital on the Far South Side in 2020. More coronavirus patients are hospitalized in Illinois than ever before.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Illinois’ unprecedented COVID-19 surge has filled all but three intensive care unit beds at hospitals across Will and Kankakee counties, a south suburban region that’s home to more than 800,000 residents.

Hospitals statewide were treating 6,600 coronavirus patients as of Monday night — the most ever, and an increase of more than 300 in a single day — including 1,118 patients in ICUs, according to figures the Illinois Department of Public Health released Tuesday.

But care centers in Will and Kankakee were stretched thinner than in any other region of the state, with ICUs at 98% capacity.

LaTivia Carr, chief nursing officer at Riverside Healthcare in Kankakee, said more patients are coming in sicker and staying longer, “which compounds our availability of critical care.”

ICU patients on ventilators are sometimes paralyzed to enable them to breathe easier, but doing so requires a great amount of care that can be physically and emotionally demanding on health care workers.

“The nurse oftentimes is the only person who is their personal touch with another human being, and so the responsibility falls on the nurse to be not only the caregiver, but the emotional support for these people as well,” said Kathy O’Grady, Riverside’s vice president of clinical services.

COVID patients are taking up enough beds at the AMITA Health St. Joseph Medical Center in Joliet and AMITA Health St. Mary’s Hospital in Kankakee that some emergency room patients are receiving care in the ER lobby instead of a room. The practice isn’t unheard of, but it’s happening “significantly more,” said Dr. Kalisha Hill, the regional chief medical officer of both hospitals.

“It has been very stressful for our staff because they are taking care of so many patients,” she said.

Nurses talk to each other before treating a COVID-19 patient at Roseland Community Hospital in 2020.
Nurses talk to each other before treating a COVID-19 patient at Roseland Community Hospital in 2020.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

The overwhelming majority of patients filling Illinois hospitals during the surge are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated, officials have said.

The vaccination status of the patients in Will and Kankakee hospitals was not available, but only about 47% of all Kankakee residents are fully vaccinated, compared to 61% statewide.

Will County slightly outpaces the state average with 62% of its total population fully vaccinated. But Will still lags behind all other Chicago area counties, except McHenry and Kane.

The situation is almost as bad at ICUs in southern Illinois, which previously were overrun with patients for over a week during the initial wave of Delta variant cases in mid-September.

With another highly infectious variant, Omicron, tearing through unvaccinated communities, the region in Downstate Illinois was back down to three available ICU beds Monday night.

Overall, ICUs were about 90% full statewide, 91% in Chicago. While overall hospital admissions are at an all-time high, ICU usage is still shy of the peak of around 1,200 beds that were taken up during the surge of November 2020, and nearly 1,300 beds in April 2020.

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But with infections showing no sign of slowing, Gov. J.B. Pritzker has urged hospital leaders across the state to postpone non-emergency surgeries to keep beds open for the rush of COVID-19 patients — upwards of 90% of whom are unvaccinated, officials have said.

While a growing number of fully vaccinated and boosted residents have come down with the virus, they’re far less likely to end up in a hospital or die from COVID-19.

Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said city data shows unvaccinated people aged 30-64 have been 35 times more likely to end up hospitalized with COVID than their vaccinated and boosted neighbors.

“The increase we’re seeing is virtually all in unvaccinated Chicagoans,” Arwady said during a livestreamed Q&A.

Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady at a news conference last November.
Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady at a news conference last November.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

The troubling numbers come as the state reported another 24,423 new COVID-19 cases — a number that would dwarf anything the state saw before last week. But with Omicron raging, Illinois has recorded 30,000-plus cases twice since Dec. 30.

Deaths typically rise several weeks after a surge in cases, a pattern playing out yet again in Illinois. The state has averaged about 56 COVID deaths per day over the past week, a rate that has doubled since the first week of December.

About 24% of Illinois residents 5 or older still haven’t gotten a shot.

Vaccines are free at pharmacies nationwide, and the city also offers free in-home vaccination appointments. For more information, visit chicago.gov/covidvax or call (312) 746-4835.