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Chicago Hospitals Struggle With Staffing, Beds As Omicron Surge Hits, With Majority Of Cases Among Unvaccinated

The city is averaging 2,069 confirmed COVID-19 cases per day, up 101 percent from the week prior. Health care workers say they're feeling the crunch — and will consider shutting down units as hospital beds fill up.

Mount Sinai Hospital.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — As the Omicron variant sends COVID-19 cases skyrocketing across the country, Chicago officials say area hospitals are nearing capacity, mostly due to unvaccinated people filling up emergency rooms and ICU beds.

On Tuesday, Dr. Susan Bleasdale, chief quality officer for University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System, sounded the alarm during a city news conference.

“With Omicron cases doubling every two to three days, our health systems are likely at risk of becoming rapidly overwhelmed,” she said. “Our biggest concern is we will not have the beds or the staff to care for our patients should the number of COVID-19 cases continue to increase.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, the University of Illinois hospital in Chicago had 45 COVID-19 patients, with 15 in the intensive care unit. She said that’s up from 30 just last week, Bleasedale said. The hospital had no ICU beds available for anyone at midday, she said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Susan Bleasdale, chief quality officer for the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System, speaks at a City Hall press conference on Dec. 21, 2021, where it was announced that proof of COVID-19 vaccine will be required for Chicago bars, restaurants and gyms starting Jan. 3.

“This is a rapid increase for us that is more rapid than what we saw last winter, when we peaked at 70-80 patients at that time,” Bleasdale said.

The number of Chicagoans being hospitalized with COVID-19 every day has climbed to its highest point since last winter’s surge.

On average, 74 people with COVID-like illness are being admitted to Chicago hospitals per day, according to state data. There were 591 people with COVID-19 using Chicago hospital beds as of Saturday.

In comparison, on Dec. 1, an average of just 47 people with COVID-19-like illness were admitted to Chicago hospitals per day, and only 390 hospital beds were in use by people with COVID-19.

The rise in COVID-19-related hospitalizations comes as Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the city would require some businesses — like restaurants, bars and gyms — to check vaccination status upon entry.

The city is averaging 2,069 confirmed coronavirus cases per day, up 101 percent from the week prior. The city’s positivity rate is at 8.3 percent, compared to 4.2 percent a week ago.

Dr. David Bordo, chief medical officer of Resurrection Medical Center on the Northwest Side, said the hospital is at “fully capacity pretty much every day.”

“We’re managing day to day as we watch the numbers and trying to not shut down services or close down departments. And, luckily, we’re doing so, but depending on the trajectory of this surge, we reevaluate almost on a daily basis,” Bordo said.

Bordo said staffing levels are also strained, as hospital employees have left for other jobs or are out sick with COVID-19 themselves.

“The staffing is very tight, and with people taking time off or falling ill, it definitely impacts patient ratios and the ability to keep services open. So that’s just as much a part of it this time around, more so than it was in the past,” he said.

University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System has also seen more staff members and their families test positive and have to stay out of work during the surge, Bleasedale said. That’s because those staff members live in the communities they serve, and community transmission is high, Bleasedale said.

Cases do appear to be “very mild” in the workers who are vaccinated and have gotten a booster shot — but the fact that those people have to stay out of work does significantly impact hospital operations, Bleasedale said.

Health officials across Chicago said the vast majority of people hospitalized or dying from COVID-19 are unvaccinated.

“So many of the hospitalizations and deaths here in Chicago are preventable with vaccines,” Dr. Allison Arwady, head of the Chicago Department of Public Health, said Tuesday.

More than 70 percent of the people in Chicago’s hospital ICU beds are unvaccinated, and more than 75 percent of people who have died recently from COVID-19 were unvaccinated, Lightfoot said.

Bordo said at AMITA Resurrection, two-thirds to three-quarters of COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated.

The same goes at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Downtown Chicago.

“Nearly all are unvaccinated. The vaccinated [COVID-19] patients we have are few and far between,” said Kristin Ramsey, the hospital’s chief nurse executive.

Ramsey said Northwestern is “full” right now, driven by a combination of the latest COVID-19 wave with an increase in flu cases and patients seeking other procedures.

“All of our hospitals are seeing unprecedented numbers of patients in our emergency department and in our primary care practices …,” she said. “I will also say one other variable that’s kind of specific to the season is that we’ve got patients who want to be seen and want to be treated before the end of the year and insurance deductibles start again.”

During previous COVID-19 waves in Chicago, businesses were shut down or operating at limited capacity. Many hospitals paused elective surgeries and other procedures to treat COVID patients.

Now, Northwestern and other health care providers don’t have that advantage, Ramsey said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Reporters were shown around the vaccination area Dec. 11, 2020 at Rush University Medical Center in the Medical District.

“What’s different now, between now and the first surge, is the first surge, life shut down. Organizations shut down to be able to accommodate COVID,” she said. “Now, COVID patients are another service line that we have to take care of, and we have not really made any of those huge organizational changes that you saw the country make, right?”

City officials have said they’re trying to avoid mass shutdowns like were used at the start of the pandemic so as not to hurt businesses — but Lightfoot said she’ll take every step needed to save lives if the outbreak worsens.

Arwady said the city could look at limiting elective procedures or changing standards of cre levels if there’s a risk of hospitals being overwhelmed, as well.

“Since very, very early in COVID, we’ve been working closely with all of the hospitals across Chicago on a daily basis,” Arwady said. “They are telling us what their availability is, and we’ve been really clear, particularly with this surge, that we don’t just mean how many beds do you have — we mean how many beds do you have that you are able to staff.

“… We have learned a lot about how to flex and grow, but we have also learned we need to act when it is necessary.”

Dr. Russell Fiorella, chief medical officer for Mount Sinai Hospital in North Lawndale and Holy Cross Hospital in Marquette Park, said COVID-19 cases have more than quadrupled at the two hospitals since November, up from single digits of patients to now almost 50 across the system. But the situation is different from earlier COVID waves, he said, with more patients vaccinated and doctors using more effective treatments.

“The good news is that we have better treatments with the antivirals and the monoclonals that we’re using. We’re being very careful about using ventilators,” Fiorella said. “Most of those aren’t requiring intensive care treatment. A lot of them are just on the medical floor so they don’t have we don’t have that huge surge in the ICU as of yet.”

Fiorella said staffing shortages have been also been a challenge, but the hospital system has surge plans in case hospitalizations continue to spike.

“We have physical space in our facility that actually will take care of the patients in addition to our regular beds in our hospital, so we have made plans for that,” he said.

Arwady said the city has no plans to turn McCormick Place back into a hospital, as was done in the early days of the pandemic, but officials have learned how to pivot to increase capacity if there’s a risk the health care system will be overwhelmed.

As Omicron spreads, Fiorella, Bordo and others said they’re waiting to learn more about the variant’s severity, which will determine how hospitals are able to cope with the latest surge in the coming weeks and months.

“We really need to see just how severe Omicron is, how long these patients are hospitalized. And how much of that will tie up our throughput of being able to admit and discharge patients,” Bordo said.

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