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Illinois Hospitals Could Be Overwhelmed Amid COVID Surge, But Chicago’s System ‘Stable’

One part of southern Illinois could have no ICU beds available as soon as Friday. Chicago, which is more vaccinated, is faring better.

Reporters were shown around the vaccination area Dec. 11, 2020 at Rush University Medical Center in the Medical District.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — Hospitals in Illinois face being overwhelmed as coronavirus surges across the state, Gov. JB Pritzker said Thursday.

The governor, who was announcing the return of a statewide indoor mask mandate, said the highly contagious Delta variant has led to a new wave of COVID-19 cases, which has driven up the number of people being hospitalized with and dying from the virus.

“Hospital staff are becoming overwhelmed and overburdened,” Pritzker said at a news conference. “People are dying who don’t have to die.”

Between January and July, 96 percent of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Illinois were unvaccinated, Pritzker said, and it’s regions with the lowest vaccination rates that are seeing their ICU beds fill up.

In Chicago, the number of people being hospitalized with COVID-19 has gone up in recent weeks.

But the city’s health care system remains “stable with available capacity,” according to a city health department news release. About 85 percent of the city’s ICU beds are in use, but fewer than 10 percent of ICU beds are filled with a COVID-19 patient, according to the agency.

The city is not “anywhere near” the peak in hospital capacity it hit in April 2020, at the start of the pandemic, according to the health department.

But the picture is gloomier for downstate Illinois.

Overall, Illinois is seeing an average of 220 people with COVID-19 admitted to the hospital every day, said Dr. Ngozi Ezike, head of the Illinois Department of Public Health. The state is facing ICU hospital bed shortages, particularly in southern and central Illinois, where vaccination rates are lowest, she said.

The state’s Region 5, which covers southern Illinois, is the least-vaccinated part of Illinois, and there is only one ICU bed available there as of Thursday, Ezike said.

“That’s one ICU bed in the entire region for the 20 counties that it serves for anyone — whether it’s appendicitis, a car crash, any kind of injury that would need a bed,” she said. “Most hospitals in different areas of the state are reaching capacity, as well.”

Region 5 won’t have any ICU beds available as soon as Friday, Ezike said. Region 4, which covers southwestern Illinois, could run out by next week. Regions 3 and 6 in central Illinois could run out of ICU beds by mid-September, she said.

Those figures cover all ICU beds — meaning even people who don’t have COVID-19 could struggle to find a spot in the ICU and get the care they need.

“I’m sure that if people understood that being unvaccinated could take a hospital bed from an accident victim, they might go get vaccinated,” Pritzker said. “Unfortunately, we are running out of time as our hospitals run out of beds.”

These regions with the lowest vaccination rates are uniquely poised to suffer because they’re often areas with fewer hospital beds, lower hospital capacity and hospitals that are the least well-equipped to handle severe cases of sickness, Pritzker said.

And the regions’ capacity issues aren’t just related to space, Pritzker said: The state is short on health care workers who can care for sick and injured people. There’s little help to be had from neighboring states because they’re dealing with their own surges, he said.

“Because of the Delta variant, hospitals are again fighting the battle we had hoped would be behind us by now,” Pritzker said. “I can’t begin to imagine how frustrating this must be for them.”

The governor and Ezike urged people to get fully vaccinated and to wear masks to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“Let’s be clear: Vaccination is the most effective tool we have for keeping people out of the hospital and preventing deaths,” Pritzker said.

Illinois is the most-vaccinated state in the Midwest, Pritzker said.

But officials worry the Delta surge could worsen if more people don’t get their shots. Pritzker has said more serious mitigation measures could return to protect people if cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to rise.

“Hospital ICU beds are filling up, once again,” he said. “Our hospital leaders look at their counterparts in southern states where low vaccination rates mirror the communities they serve, and they fear the worst is yet to come for us.”

COVID-19 vaccinations are free and do not require insurance. Anyone can call the city’s coronavirus hotline at 312-746-4835 to get more information on how and where to get vaccinated in their community.

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