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Pritzker blames unvaccinated as COVID patients fill Illinois hospitals amid Omicron surge

IDPH director Ngozi Ezike speaks at Illinois' daily coronavirus disease briefing
screen capture
Illinois Office of Communication and Information

Gov. JB Pritzker and other health officials from across Illinois on Monday identified unvaccinated people as the cause for healthcare systems stretched to their limits as the state experiences a fifth COVID wave driven by the virus’ extremely contagious Omicron variant.

Five-hundred new COVID patients were admitted to Illinois hospitals between Sunday and Monday — a number that represents a quadrupling of COVID patients hospitalized in Illinois since a late-October lull in the pandemic after the state’s battle with the Delta variant in late summer.

The vast majority of those hospitalized with COVID both in Illinois and across the U.S. continue to be unvaccinated people — a choice the governor panned at a Chicago news conference Monday, blaming the unvaccinated for taking up intensive care unit beds that may need to be used by “your ailing spouse or your parent or your child…someone with cancer or a heart attack or seriously injured in a car accident.”

As Illinois’ COVID hospitalization rate is on track to rivaling peaks from the early days of the pandemic and last winter’s surge, Pritzker warned of consequences for those who might be displaced from medical care.

“If we are forced to move to a crisis standard of care in our hospitals, it will be because massive numbers of unvaccinated people chose to let others go without quality care, and even more people will die,” he said.

But another invited speaker on Monday’s press conference program — Colleen Kannaday, president of Carle BroMenn Medical Center in Normal and Carle Eureka Hospital in central Illinois — laid out the inherent tension in blaming the unvaccinated while also asking them to get their COVID shots.

“I worry right now that our pleas to our communities in asking everyone to get vaccinated have become white noise and are actually causing some to bristle at the words,” Kannaday said, while acknowledging the majority of COVID patients in critical care areas of her two hospitals are unvaccinated.

Christmas collision

While Americans made leftover turkey sandwiches the day after celebrating Thanksgiving last month, the World Health Organization designated COVID’s Omicron variant a “variant of concern” just two days after South African scientists reported the new mutation.

The variant’s arrival in the U.S. — weeks before the first reported case in early December — put Illinois’ COVID preparedness on a collision course with holiday gatherings, particularly Christmas and New Year’s.

In the lead-up to the holiday last week, Illinois set records three days in a row for the number of new COVID cases reported to the state’s Department of Public Health, with 21,131 new cases identified Friday — Christmas Eve — according to new figures published Monday.

Hannah Meisel/NPR Illinois
Hannah Meisel/NPR Illinois

And while a combination of private and public testing testing sites and labs in Illinois are running more COVID tests now than at any point during the pandemic, record testing numbers are also yielding highest positive test results. Illinois’ 7-day average test positivity rate ballooned to 11.7% on Monday, roughly doubling from a week and a half ago.

The current COVID surge and its proximity to Christmas has made for long lines at testing sites in addition to shortages in rapid at-home antigen tests. Those self-administered test results aren’t generally reported to the state’s health department, though people are encouraged to follow up their at-home tests with PCR tests.

Despite the limitations of at-home antigen tests, public health officials still say they’re a tool to help prevent COVID’s spread. President Joe Biden has committed to buying half-a-billion rapid tests to send to Americans next month. But while Pritzker on Monday said he’s grateful for the effort, it’s not a silver bullet.

“Some of us governors have said privately or publicly that it’s not enough because if there are…330 million or so Americans, and even if you said only half will test, that’s not very many tests,” the governor said.

Instead of leaning heavily on rapid tests, Pritzker announced his administration is increasing capacity at Illinois’ free-community-based testing sites by 50% and keeping the sites open six days per week — up from the current four-day schedule.

Bolstering boosters

Pritzker on Monday also announced Illinois will more than double staffing at the state’s mass vaccination sites to meet the growing demand for COVID booster shots. Approximately 40% of Illinois’ 7.3 million fully vaccinated adults have now gotten booster doses.

Federal Centers for Disease Control guidance changed last month to recommend all adults get booster shots about six months after their second dose of mRNA vaccines — Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna — or two months after the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The change came after mounting research finding COVID vaccine immunity waning at the five- to six-month mark after getting fully vaccinated, and as some states began recommending booster doses without waiting for federal guidance. Earlier this month, the minimum age for booster doses expanded to 16-year-olds.

Hannah Meisel/NPR Illinois
Hannah Meisel/NPR Illinois

Last week, both the city of Chicago and Cook County announced vaccine mandates for indoor private businesses, but Pritzker on Monday said that approach won’t work for every corner of the state, reiterating that he was encouraging local governments to take action that goes further than his statewide mask mandate and vaccine requirement for certain state workers.

Despite fairly quick uptake on booster shots from nearly 3 million Illinoisans so far, weakened vaccine immunity met with the Omicron variant — which researchers believe can evade immunity from both COVID shots and prior infection — created ideal conditions for a fifth COVID surge.

And as before, it’s mostly unvaccinated people who are getting sick from the virus to the point of needing intensive hospital care. That’s frustrating to Rex Buddy, the president and CEO of Southern Illinois Healthcare, which runs three hospitals in southern Illinois.

“People are dying from this virus that don’t need to die,” Budde said. “Imagine being a nurse or a physician or a care tech who have to look at this and deal with this every single day. Staff is worn out.”

Hannah Meisel/NPR Illinois

Staffing shortages

In addition to staggering levels of burnout among healthcare professionals nearly two years into the pandemic, hospital staffing shortages are being exacerbated by doctors, nurses and other personnel catching COVID on the job.

Allan Spooner, president and CEO of Franciscan Health’s South Suburban Chicago Division, said Monday the two hospitals he oversees have seen their staff COVID infections increase along with a quadrupling in new COVID patients in just the last three weeks — from 10% of new intakes to 42%. More than 70% of patients in the hospitals’ critical care areas are COVID positive, too.

The number of hospital beds available at any given time depends on medical personnel actually available to staff those beds. ICU beds in particular require an especially high level of staff, but the number of available ICU beds in Illinois has been steadily shrinking for most of 2021, as reported by theChicago Tribune earlier this month.

Pritzker’s administration last year entered into a staffing contract with outside providers in order to provide assistance to hospitals struggling with staffing shortages. On Monday, the governor reiterated that available support but also said he’d requested Army staffing help from the Biden administration, but had yet to receive the assistance.

Earlier in the pandemic, ICU bed availability falling below 20% within a certain region would mean businesses could be subject COVID mitigations like capacity limits. The same went for COVID test positivity rates increasing above certain levels within a region.

But while only one of Illinois’ 11 regions currently has ICU bed availability over 20%, and all of the 11 regions have seen their positivity rates climb over previous thresholds that spelled danger, Pritzker has been reticent to return to previous phases of his economic reopening plan, citing the wide availability of vaccines.

Hannah covers state government and politics for Capitol News Illinois. She's been dedicated to the statehouse beat since interning at NPR Illinois in 2014, with subsequent stops at WILL-AM/FM, Law360, Capitol Fax and The Daily Line before returning to NPR Illinois in 2020 and moving to CNI in 2023.