Hospital officials in Bloomington-Normal are plotting what do once their beds are full as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations rise.
McLean County reached a new high for COVID hospitalizations on Tuesday with 23. Hospital capacity also has dropped. Just one is six hospital beds is available, and only one in 10 intensive care beds is open.
“We are truly at a critical point in our fight against COVID,” said Colleen Kannaday, president of Carle BroMenn and Carle Eureka hospitals.
Kannaday and Lynn Fulton, president of OSF St. Joseph Medical Center in Bloomington, urge the public to “rethink" Thanksgiving plans. Both spoke during a virtual news conference on Tuesday.
Fulton said make it virtual if you must, but limit it to people in your COVID bubble.
“Let’s provide some distance and give this pandemic time that it can wind down,” Fulton said. “We are in the home stretch, we hope.”
Hospital officials said their biggest worry as coronavirus cases rise is will they have enough health care staff to treat patients. Kannaday said staffing needs can change by the hour, and as community spread of the coronavirus increases, it's getting harder to keep workers safe.
“With such widespread community spread of COVID, more and more of our staff members are becoming infected,” Kannaday said.
Kannaday said about 4% of Carle Health System's staff has contracted the coronavirus since the pandemic began. At OSF Healthcare, that number is 6% and several of its health care workers have died from COVID-19 systemwide, Fulton said.
Fulton said early in the pandemic, hospital staffs could travel to where they were needed most. Some OSF staff helped at hospitals in Chicago. She said the luxury of hospitals bringing in temporary staff doesn't exist anymore.
“Staffing is a finite resource. There isn’t a truck full of nurses or (technicians) or physicians just waiting to come in,” Fulton said.
The hospitals said they have some leeway, for example, pulling staff from outpatient services as needed. They also could postpone elective surgeries as some hospitals have recently done.
Gov. JB Pritzker put a temporary hold on those surgeries early in the pandemic to free up hospital space. Fulton said they don't want to do that again. OSF has since seen a rise in heart attacks and strokes.
“Whether their appointment with a cardiologist was put off or done differently, we are seeing an escalation in those patients today,” Fulton said. “That’s another reason why we are trying to push and keep as many electives and ambulatory care as we can.”
Hospital space also is a finite resource, but both Carle and OSF say they have some flexibility. OSF St. Joseph recently opened a COVID unit by temporarily closing a transitional care unit. Fulton said OSF also can transfer patients to its hospitals in Pontiac and Peoria if there's a bed shortage.
“Maybe we have a medical patient that they can take care of. We don’t like to do that to patients and families, but if we can so that we can continue to care for our people, we will do that and continue to do that,” Fulton said.
Kannaday said Carle BroMenn can double up patients in hospital rooms and take over space that's currently used for outpatient services.
“That would certainly be another lever we would be able to pull if the volume got to the point where it necessitated that," she said, adding, "We are a long way from that.”
McLean County is exploring alternate care sites where patients could be treated. Health Department Administrator Jessica McKnight said such a plan would only be activated in an "extreme" situation.
Both Carle and OSF also have rolled out programs that enable patients with mild COVID cases to track their symptoms at home.
Fulton and Kannaday said they hope a coronavirus vaccine will soon alleviate the burden on the health care system and get life back to normal.
They are less optimistic about a new antibody treatment the federal government has started to distribute. Regeneron has received emergency use authorization. About 300,000 doses are supposed to be distributed by January.
Kannaday said early supplies will be so limited, few patients will get the treatment.
“It would be misleading for the community to provide a false sense of hope that there is this great treatment that’s widely available at this point in time,” Kannaday said.
McKnight said some of the recent COVID data in McLean County shows some hope. Testing postivity rates dropped in recent days from near-record highs. She said maybe it's a sign that more people are taking notice.
“It’s still too early say we’ve got this, but it’s, ‘We can do this,’'' she said.
McKnight said that starts with making smart choices during the holidays, fighting the urge to be with vulnerable loved ones.
McLean County reported its 50th COVID-related death on Tuesday, a woman in her 30s.
Editor's note: WGLT updated this story to correct the percentage of OSF HealthCare employees who have tested positive for the coronavirus.
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