Memorial CMO: Holidays Could ‘Add Fuel To The Fire’ Of COVID-19 Surge In Central Illinois

Oct 20, 2020

Five more people with COVID-19 died over the weekend, the Sangamon County Department of Public Health reported Monday, bringing the death toll to 62. The seven-day average of new cases in the county – one measure of how quickly the virus is spreading – continues to tick up to around 60.

Meanwhile, the number of patients sick with COVID-19 at Memorial Health System hospitals in central Illinois is the highest it’s been at any point during the coronavirus pandemic.

The surge can be traced back to activity around Labor Day, said Dr. Raj Govindaiah, chief medical officer of Memorial Health System. The system runs hospitals in Springfield, Decatur, Jacksonville, Taylorville and Lincoln.

“If we go back and look at the way the disease has spread, coming out of every holiday, there's been a bump up,” Govindaiah said. “The holiday that kind of set us back was Labor Day.”

For other parts of the country, it was Fourth of July. But Govindaiah said not much virus was circulating in the region during that holiday, though he suspects behaviors – like social gatherings or outings to bars and restaurants – were probably similar.

“We had just enough dry kindling that the match of Labor Day lit it afire. And now it's spreading, it's smoldering,” he said. “And we have these other holidays coming up. And I'm worried they're going to add fuel to that fire.”

NPR Illinois talked with Govindaiah about where people are contracting the virus, what it means for healthcare workers and hospitals, and the potential for more spread of COVID-19 during the holidays.

Below are excerpts from the conversation.

Where are most people contracting the virus?

Several months ago, we were seeing clusters of cases that would be brought into an extended care facility. Now, it's just people in the community who have fatigue from all the social distancing, the mask wearing. They're a little bit tired of all the social isolation, and they're hanging out. In doing so they're inadvertently spreading this illness.

What are some of the additional challenges aside from availability of beds when there are so many COVID-19 patients?

We have this really ironic double whammy. There are more patients because more people are getting sick in the community. And more of the people that would care for them get sick too. If the disease continues to surge, like it did in other places of the country earlier this year, or we add a flu season on top of it, we won't have enough healthy staff to take care of the patients who need care. That's what we saw in other communities around the country. And that's what we want to avoid.

Memorial recently laid off 143 employees. Are you going to be hiring people back if you're facing a shortage of workers?

We did not lay off anyone who provided direct patient care. It was all back office, non-clinical facing people who are important to Memorial but in this environment, we could not manage all the pressures we're facing. We are hiring nurses, we're hiring techs, we are hiring phlebotomist.

Are there things that the community needs to be doing right now or the health department needs to be doing to help control the spread of the virus?

We already know the things that are effective. We just need to commit to doing them. Wash your hands, wear a mask, watch your distance, and get a flu shot. These are the simple things that we can do right now to stay healthy, not get sick, not get others sick, and to stay out of the hospital, or make sure that that health care provider who does go and take care of people not hospital doesn't get exposed as well.

That's why the vigilance, even in the face of fatigue of all of this stuff that we have to do is still so important. And ironically, it's more important right now than at any other point during the pandemic for Central Illinois because we have the most disease circulating in our community.

Do you expect to see a continuing rise in COVID-19 cases and in hospitalizations?

If we go back and look at the way the disease has spread, coming out of every holiday, there's been a bump up. The holiday that kind of set us back was Labor Day. In other parts of the United States it was Fourth of July.

What's different between Fourth of July and Labor Day for us? Well, around Fourth of July, there wasn't a whole lot of disease activity in Central Illinois. Our behaviors were probably pretty similar, but the amount of disease activity was different. We had just enough dry kindling that the match of Labor Day lit it afire. And now it's spreading, it's smoldering.

And we have these other holidays coming up. And I'm worried they're going to add fuel to that fire.

For the holidays, what is your advice for people who are making those really tough decisions about whether or not to see their family?

Every time you meet with those individuals, you're meeting with everyone that they have been in contact with too. And do you really understand how many people that is? And do you really understand the risk that you are placing yourself in or you are placing your family member in by all the people you've interacted with? So just, be cautious.