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Up, up and astray? If COVID-19 surge doesn’t peak soon, weary health care workers fear it ‘would be absolutely cataclysmic’

“We haven’t peaked yet. We’re filling up more and more beds,” said Dr. Sajal Tanna of Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “Everybody is stretched incredibly thin. I honestly don’t know if there is much more room to stretch.”

Doctors and nurses tend to a 56-year-old woman suffering from COVID-19 in April 2020 at Roseland Community Hospital. Illinois hospitals are stretched as thin as they have been throughout the pandemic due to a surge in severe cases among unvaccinated patients.
Doctors and nurses tend to a 56-year-old woman suffering from COVID-19 in April 2020 at Roseland Community Hospital. Illinois hospitals are stretched as thin as they have been throughout the pandemic due to a surge in severe cases among unvaccinated patients.
Ashlee Rezin /Sun-Times file

It’s still too early to say when Illinois’ astronomical COVID-19 surge might slow down, but it’ll be disastrous if the waves of unvaccinated patients flooding hospitals don’t crest soon, front-line health care workers say.

As the state on Friday reported another eye-popping round of 42,903 new cases, hospitals across the state were treating 7,096 coronavirus patients. That means two beds opened up from the previous day’s record high total — not that the difference was felt in any of Chicago’s overloaded hospital wards.

“We haven’t peaked yet. We’re filling up more and more beds,” said Dr. Sajal Tanna, an infectious disease specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “In previous surges, even when other cities were stretched beyond capacity, we weren’t completely overwhelmed. This time is different.”

“Everybody is stretched incredibly thin. I honestly don’t know if there is much more room to stretch,” Tanna said.

The number of COVID patients admitted at the University of Chicago Medical Center finally held level for two days as of Friday for the first time since the state’s unprecedented, Omicron-fueled surge began last month, according to UChicago Medicine specialist Dr. Emily Landon.

Whether it means relief is near remains to be seen, she said. Forecasting models of Illinois’ worst surge yet in the pandemic vary widely, suggesting case numbers could peak as early as next week — or not until next month.

“If this isn’t the peak, where everything is still doubling every few days, that would be insane,” Landon said. “If it goes on like this until early February, that would be absolutely cataclysmic.”

A patient is wheeled out of the Intensive Care Unit at Roseland Community Hospital in December of 2020.
A patient is wheeled out of the Intensive Care Unit at Roseland Community Hospital in December of 2020.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Thursday’s statewide caseload of 44,089 set a troubling new high-water mark for Illinois, almost tripling the height of the previous pandemic apex last fall. The state reported more than 201,000 cases over the past week — not counting at-home tests. That’s the equivalent of the population of Aurora, Illinois’ second-largest city, testing positive in a span of seven days.

Sure, early research suggests Omicron causes less severe infections than Delta or some other variants. That doesn’t matter when such broad swaths of the state are coming down with it, Landon said.

“A smaller percentage of people getting sick are ending up in the hospital, but a small percentage of a big number is still a lot,” she said. “The collateral damage from so many people being sick at the same time is going to be astronomical.”

New COVID-19 cases by day

Graphic by Jesse Howe and Caroline Hurley | Sun-Times

Source: Illinois Department of Public Health

Graph not displaying properly? Click here.

Tanna argued “it’s too early to write this off as a mild strain. My patients with transplants, and older patients — they’re still going to the ICU.”

Intensive care units across the state are already 91% full, or worse in some regions as of Thursday night. Two ICU beds were available for all of southern Illinois, where hospitals were already overrun for more than a week last summer.

And more cases are ending in tragedy. The state reported more than 100 COVID deaths for a second straight day Friday, the first time that’s happened in about a year.

The issue is compounded as burnt-out health care workers leave the profession while the state weathers its fifth surge of the pandemic — one that experts say could’ve been largely avoided if more people were vaccinated. Nine out of 10 of new hospital admissions are unvaccinated residents, officials say.

Nurse practitioner Capri Reese takes a minute to herself in an elevator after an 80-year-old man suffering from COVID-19 died at Roseland Community Hospital in April of 2020.
Nurse practitioner Capri Reese takes a minute to herself in an elevator after an 80-year-old man suffering from COVID-19 died at Roseland Community Hospital in April of 2020.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

“People are having to do jobs they don’t normally do every day. There just aren’t enough nurses, physicians and technicians to go around,” Tanna said. “Everyone should definitely get vaccinated. And having that booster, with Omicron, can really reduce your risk of getting hospitalized.”

About 22.4% of Illinois residents 5 or older still haven’t gotten a shot. About three-quarters of the state’s whole population have received at least one dose, nearly two-thirds completed their initial vaccine series and 40% have been boosted, according to state data.

Christian Clettenberg, 15, receives a COVID-19 vaccine at the Rush University Medical Center in the Illinois Medical District in May.
Christian Clettenberg, 15, receives a COVID-19 vaccine at the Rush University Medical Center in the Illinois Medical District in May.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

It’ll take more than that to flatten this curve, experts say.

“The holidays are over. Let’s just take a timeout: Wear the best fitting mask you can, stay away from other people when you can, keep that social distance when you can’t, get vaccinated and boosted, and tell your loved ones to do the same,” Landon said.

Tanna added: “It’s critical for people to be really vigilant, especially these next few weeks.”

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