Public health officials say Champaign County is at a “critical juncture” in the pandemic

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The exterior of Carle Foundation Hospital's emergency department in Urbana during October 2019.

As Thanksgiving approached this week, Champaign County public health officials issued a grave warning: more COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are certain if current trends continue.

On Monday, Champaign-Urbana Public Health Department Administrator Julie Pryde, joined by officials from Carle Foundation Hospital and OSF HealthCare Heart of Mary Medical Center in Urbana, warned that hospitals are approaching capacity.

“Champaign County is one of the most prepared counties anywhere in the state, and yet, this is where we are going into the holidays,” Pryde said during the online press conference. “We are going to see a lot of tragedy this winter, especially all around us.”

The officials said that Region 6 — which covers 21 counties in east-central Illinois including Champaign County — had only 29% of its Intensive Care Unit capacity and 29% of its hospital bed capacity remaining as virus cases surged.

Carle.org’s COVID-19 dashboard on November 25, 2020 shows over 100 patients with the novel virus in the Carle Health system.

Carle’s COVID Dashboard reported 70 patients were hospitalized at the Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana as of Wednesday morning, with 15 of them in intensive care. The hospital has accelerated efforts to increase capacity and prepare for an “onslaught” of hospitalizations. The Carle Health system had said that 13% to 14% of patients tested by Carle for COVID-19 had tested positive over the past three weeks.

Dr. David Chan, Carle’s associate chief medical officer, said the hospital has ordered more ventilators and has created eight additional ICU beds in a new unit. Already, Carle is choosing not to perform certain elective surgeries to maintain staffing and space to care for COVID-19 patients.

“We’re finding every nook and cranny to find out where we can expand more beds,” Chan said. “And more critically important, really, is finding more staff.”

The state public health departments have reported 54 COVID-19 deaths in Champaign County with 26 so far in the month of November. The county reported a total of 1,164 active cases on Wednesday with a 9.0% seven-day test positivity rate when excluding University of Illinois saliva tests. State public health officials say that positivity rates must be under 8% to relax current restrictions.

As Carle continues to feel the strain, particularly from the rural counties to the south that make up Region 6, Chan said resources will continue to be stretched to care for as many patients as possible. But as COVID-19 patients continue to take up nearly all of Carle’s space and resources, Chan fears Champaign County residents will suffer, both from increasing COVID-19 cases, as well as from an inability to be treated for other medical emergencies.  

“As we continue to be challenged with all this, keep this in mind, we’re caring for patients,” Chan said. “Besides with COVID infections, we’re caring for those who have heart attacks, who have strokes, who come in with trauma. With the increased number of resources being utilized to care for the COVID patients, we could truly run into the situation where we have limited resources to manage all the other very important health problems that exist.”

If current trends continue, it is becoming clear that Carle will be unable to care for all patients who are seriously ill, according to Chan. 

“While I’m usually a very optimistic person, being a pediatrician, but I have to tell you, it’s a matter of when, not if,” Chan said. 

“We meet literally, if not daily, every other day to talk about how else can we accommodate more patients and how else can we find more staff,” he continued. “We have ordered more ventilators because we anticipate there will be a need. We ordered more equipment to help the respiratory management of these patients. We are hoping and praying for the vaccine to come and actually make an impact.”

Dr. Jared Rogers, President of OSF HealthCare Heart of Mary Medical Center, said his facility has also seen a surge in serious cases. 

“There have been times where our intensive care unit is completely full, and we can’t go beyond that with intensive care patients,” Rogers said. “At times, our medical surgical areas have been nearly as full, although a little bit more fluctuating. That does change day-to-day and shift-to-shift.

As more and more healthcare workers get sick, Rogers echoed Chan’s concerns about maintaining staffing levels. 

“One of the things we’re seeing now that we didn’t really see a lot of initially with this pandemic a few months ago is that the number of healthcare workers that are contracting COVID and becoming ill and unable to work,” Rogers said. “And as that starts to pick up speed, along with the pandemic picking up speed, that’s a double whammy.”

During the press conference officials noted the progress that has been made on vaccines for COVID-19  and Pryde said that Champaign County hopes to begin distributing vaccines soon from one or both of Pfizer and Moderna, whose vaccines are in the final stages before distribution to prioritized individuals across the country.

But Pryde said there is no specific timeline or finalized plan for who and how individuals in Champaign County and Region 6 will receive the vaccine, especially without a finalized plan for distribution in the state of Illinois. 

Pryde added that she hopes Illinois and Champaign County will have more fully developed distribution plans in the early weeks of December, and that people involved in “direct client care” will receive it first. That includes emergency room workers, hospital and ICU employees, convenient care workers and those who are exposed to direct client care providers. 

With all of the state now under Tier 3 mitigations, which limits gatherings and closes bars and restaurants, Pryde emphasized the need for cooperation from the community regarding local businesses, many of which have been documented by residents and officials as breaking the rules. 

Pryde pleaded for businesses to get in line, and said that the health department and local police are working to enforce compliance. 

“Right now, we are in a situation in our community where restaurants and bars are staying open,” Pryde said. “We are having to use our resources at the health department, the police are having to use their resources, everybody has to go out and chase places down that are doing stuff that they shouldn’t be.”

She said individuals have a crucial role to play as well, especially during the Thanksgiving holiday, as cases continue to rise in the region.

“Most importantly, you do not have to go there if something is open,” Pryde continued. “Don’t do it. It is causing a critical situation in our community, and we’re going to see that moving forward.”

Pryde said individual decisions made by residents will determine whether the area’s health systems will buckle or hold strong as COVID-19 continues to surge. 

“We really need people to get on board with this,” Pryde said. “It gets down to individual behaviors, and we can’t do anything about that. That is up to this community, and we are continuing to see weddings, gatherings, and parties, and we are continuing to see spread from this.”

She asked people to not gather with anyone outside of their household over the holiday, and if doing so, to wear masks, socially distance and regularly wash their hands.

Gavin Good / For CU-CitizenAccess

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